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  Chapter 38


The ejection seat that saved Jack’s life had saved the lives of hundreds of Navy pilots. Before its advent, getting out of a disabled aircraft was difficult and cumbersome. In the Skyraider, for example, the pilot had to open the canopy manually. He then had to somehow climb on his seat and throw himself over the side while attached to an awkward parachute pack dangling beneath his backside. Once free of the cockpit, he had to hope the horizontal stabilizer did not strike him as it went by. And he had better not forget to open his parachute on his way down! The ejection seat had done away with all that.

An ingenious device, it followed a sequence of events and it could be activated by either of two handles. The first was over and behind the pilot’s helmet. This was a rectangular loop that was pulled down in front of the pilot’s face. This movement brought a small fabric over the pilot’s face to protect it from the jet stream when the pilot left the aircraft. This was known as “pulling the curtain,” and was used by carrier pilots in various social situations. It meant “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

The second activation handle was a similar loop between the pilot’s legs. It was placed there in case the pilot was unable to raise his arms to the primary loop. That might happen if the aircraft’s flight path was such that it created high gravity-type forces that pinned the pilot’s body to the seat. That might be compared to the way a rapidly-rising elevator compresses the body of its passengers as it starts its ascent.

These forces might prevent the pilot from raising his arms to the primary loop. They are the result of sudden and sustained aircraft directional changes.  They might be likened to the tension felt by a by a rope when it is rotated in a circular pattern with a weight at its end. The faster the weight is rotated, the more force it will feel. These forces are measured in units of gravity known as “g.” Resting in a chair, a man’s weight is determined by the mutual attraction of the mass of his body and the mass of the earth. In a way, this attraction is what keeps us from flying off the earth. We are stuck here by gravity. In terms of physics, we weigh one “g.” In an aircraft, gravity forces resulting from directional changes might be six or seven times the force of gravity. Under such conditions, raising an arm against this force would be impossible. 

In a normal ejection sequence, the seat is powered away from the aircraft by a rocket that is triggered a split second after the canopy is blown off. In earlier days, the propulsion was from a 20mm cannon shell, and all the power was imparted to the seat instantaneously. That sometimes caused a pilot’s backbone to compress. Harry had once served with a pilot who had ejected three times with earlier seats and he claimed to have lost an inch-and-a-half in height. Harry could easily believe it. Now, with a rocket, the acceleration was spread over a longer time.

The new seat was known as a “zero-zero” seat. That meant that even with the airplane motionless on the ground, the rocket powered the pilot high enough for the chute to open before he hit the ground. Any speed and altitude were gravy. Once, a pilot in Harry’s Air Wing had an emergency that forced him to eject while still on the flight deck. The seat worked fine, but bad luck had placed the “cherry picker,” a mobile heavy crane, directly in his trajectory. He died from a broken neck.

Once the seat, pilot still attached, is clear of the airplane, a timer separates the pilot from the seat by inflating a bladder. Now, if the pilot is below 14,000 feet, an aerobic device opens the chute to complete the sequence. If the pilot is above that altitude, he will free-fall until he gets there. A tiny bottle provides oxygen during the fall. From high altitudes, that can last several minutes.

The earlier chutes were set to open at 10,000 feet, which cleared almost all the terrain in the U.S. Almost. No one had thought about the Sierra Nevada Mountains that reach well above that level.

A pilot from Harry’s base in Lemoore, California, had once ejected over these mountains with a 10,000-foot chute. He landed in a deep snow bank, chute unopened, about 11,000 feet up. He suffered a broken back, but survived. As he and his chute were being hauled back to the base, the chute opened as programmed when the vehicle passed 10,000 feet. So, it was back to the drawing board.

That canopy-releasing T handle also needed some redesign when a pilot Harry knew mistook it for a similar handle that deployed a Ram Air Turbine into the jet stream for emergency electrical power. He had just entered the landing pattern when he remembered that he had not checked the RAT. Because the system had been miss-rigged during a maintenance check, he inadvertently fired the ejection sequence. As the squadron Safety Officer was driving home that afternoon, he was astonished to see a Skyhawk crash a few hundred yards from the road.

Stopping and looking up, he saw a parachute, its pilot dangling beneath, about to land nearby. He ran to the scene.

“What happened?” he asked excitedly as the pilot touched down.

“Damned if I know,” was the reply. “I looked around, and all of a sudden, my airplane was gone.”

Harry had later spoken with this pilot. After he unhooked himself from the chute, he had looked up to see his pilot-less airplane heading straight for the airfield control tower. It soon veered away but, for a few heart-stopping moments, it had that tower in its crosshairs. Naval aviation can be full of surprises; “all of a sudden, my airplane was gone,” was a big one.

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