Ejection seats that orient themselves "up" relative to Earth

A friend of mine mentioned that the ejection seats in Russian fighters will attempt to orient themselves for vertical descent with a burst of powered thrust, and that American ones just spit them out “like a watermelon seed” normal to aircraft position–a situation worse for the seed in some occasions.

  1. Is the statement correct for all US aircraft?

  2. What are/were the reasons/cost/operational decisions for that?

I don’t see the distinction, here: The aircraft must spit out the seat normal to the vehicle’s current orientation, because that’s where the opening is to spit them out of. After being thus spat out, the Russian seats probably try to align themselves vertically, but I expect that the American seats do so too.

  1. It is AFAIK and AFAI could quickly Google. To clarify: US seats don’t have an orient to vertical system. Although they do have anti-tumble systems.

1a) I have heard of a Russian capability to orient upwards after ejection. How much and how well it worked was never defined in anything I could ever find. The relevant wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NPP_Zvezda_K-36 is silent on this point despite being pretty much a translated catalog page from the manufacturer.

  1. Per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ACES_II the minimum altitude for successful ejection in inverted level flight is 140 feet. The number of additional lives saved with a more sophisticated system able to work at even lower altitudes inverted would be very few. In fact it might be a negative number if the additional complexity resulted in additional malfunctions.
    The major remaining problems with ejecting survivably are doing so at high speed or at high descent rates near the ground. A feature to re-orient upwards would not materially improve either of those scenarios.

The fix for high speeds is some kind of capsule to keep the pilot out of the Mach 1+ wind. That’s very heavy and a maintenance nightmare.

The fix for higher descent rates near the ground is 1) earlier decision making by the pilot; 2) quicker reacting eject system from decision to first seat movement; 3) faster deploying parachute to begin reducing descent rate earlier / higher.

This last one is the most bang per unit change because of the exponential gain in time to impact for earlier descent rate arrestment. A limit is you can only slow the person so rapidly before you damage them by ripping off legs or causing concussions and organ injuries.

Bottom line: IMO our guys aren’t dying from ejecting inverted at low altitude. That part of the total system ain’t broke and doesn’t need fixing.

Your friend is mistaken.

If you watch this youtube video of a Mig 29 crash at an airshow, at the 1:16 mark you’ll see the Russian pilot spit out like a watermelon seed, exactly the way your friend described happens to American pilots. You can see the flames from the ejection seat’s rockets, and you can also see that they are in no way oriented to give any course correction at all to the pilot. He comes straight out of the plane, and that’s it.


The Russian K36 claims a minimum altitude of 100 feet compared to the American Aces II which claims a minimum of 140 feet. That’s a slight advantage fo the K36, but keep in mind that the difference between the two is less than the length of either a Russian Mig 29 or an American F15.

Keep in mind how ejection seats work, too. After ejecting, a chute comes out, which creates drag. No matter how the pilot was oriented when he came out of the plane (let’s assume some kind of weird flat spin or something bizarre), the drag from the chute means that in a very short amount of time, the chute, and the pilot’s head, will be facing away from the direction of travel, and the pilot’s feet will be facing towards the direction of travel. As the chute inflates and the pilot slows down, his feet are going to point more and more towards the earth, and the chute will be overhead. So no matter how he came out of the plane, he’s going to end up being oriented properly just because of the chute. No fancy steering mechanism is required.

Yes, I thought of that vid.

He’s a nice and smart guy…I’ll bug him to sign up and weigh in. He was USAF Special Ops of some sort or other; after wounded wound up (isn’t English language a bitch?) in ejection seat something for part of his hitch.

ETA: I also told him there was this [del]strutting peacock Tom Cruise wannabe macho he-man[/del] F-16 pilot on the board I was friendly with. He taught me the expression "lawn darts,’ so now I know that.

Are you saying that the seats don’t “self-right?”
Because, that isn’t true.

Just look at this photo:
http://christianfighterpilot.com/2010/07/26/pilot-ejects-from-cf-18-moments-before-crash/

On the video, it looked to me like the pilot went straight out of the plane. Those pictures are a lot more detailed though and they clearly show the seat righting itself.

Looks like I was wrong.

I guess there is something to the OP after all.

The pilot appears to be horizontal (parallel to the ground) which is how he exited the plane. You can see the 1st stage drag chute is already deployed in the picture and is aligned to the flight path. As described earlier it orients by default.

Given the altitude it’s an impressive system.

what I found interesting in the video is that the upper air inlet was open on the remaining engine. These are used for taxiing so the engines don’t pick up FOD through the normal forward facing inlets. I’d always thought they were manually opened/closed by the pilot but obviously they’re automated in some way and it’s determined by engine performance. There’s no reason for them to be switched while the plane is in flight which might actually add to the problems of a compressor stall.

A friend’s dad flew B-47s. The pilot’s and co-pilot’s ejection seats fired upward. The navigator/bombardier’s ejection seat fired downward. Pilots would always promise the N/Bs that if they had to eject at very low levels, they’d try to roll inverted for him. :smiley:

I can’t think of many/any instances where Russian systems/organizations are designed to treat personnel better than US/UK/Can systems/organizations. I’d be glad to be shown instances where this is true and not applied to personnel used for propaganda purposes* or the very high-ranking being given aristocratic perks**.

What’s the minimum ejection altitude when not flying inverted?
Fighter pilots already are in something close to a capsule. I get why it would pose weight problems but how would it be particularly problematic for maintenance purposes?

Would it be possible to angle/balance the seat such that only the back of the seat faced the wind at Mach 1+? I’m sure it’s been considered but I’d like to understand what makes it difficult beyond what I can intuit.

  • E.g.: Yuri Gagarin and other Hero of the Soviet Union recipients.

** E.g.: High-ranking officers having access to special stores or Beria using the NKVD to kidnap women and bring them to his dacha.

The b-58 Hustler used a capsule system where the seat had a shield that pulled over the pilot. The F-111 uses a system where the entire cockpit becomes a capsule for both pilots. Old technology that was complex and prone to failure.

Zero feet. But the real issue is not altitude; it’s descent rate. The minimum is zero feet only when not descending, e.g. sitting on the ramp or during takeoff roll. If descending straight down at Mach 1 it might be more like 3,000 feet = 3 seconds before impact.

The effort to create the so-called “zero-zero” (altitude & airspeed) seat was a huge boon for crew safety when it came out in the late 1960s. This was a time where a huge number of pilots were killed in takeoff and landing accidents and low altitude engine failures and such. Making a seat with enough ballistic oomph to keep the pilot aloft long enough for the chute to blossom without also killing / maiming him (always him in those days) was quite an achievement.

We still don’t have a good solution to high dynamic flight aimed at terrain.

You need to design a system to hold the capsule firmly in the aircraft, yet release it instantly and with total reliability when needed. And every wire, cable, hose, and duct that enters the cockpit needs to have a quick disconnect that seals reliably yet uncouples easily. Every one of those disconnects is a failure point.

The whole system is driven by pyrotechnics. Which all have limited service lives and need periodic replacement since there’s no effective way to fault-test them in place. In a capsule design all this stuff is buried in the innards of the aircraft. Fighters innards are about like the human body; there is zero empty space under the skin. Every cubic centimeter is full of something. With an ejection seat the whole thing is craned out of the aircraft as a unit to replace the pyros in the seat base. Not so easy with a capsule design.

How do you propose to have the pilot, who needs to face forwards to see what he’s doing, somehow be turned around behind the seat before the canopy opens and the wind comes in?

Further, the real issue is flail injuries. In that kind of wind your arms & legs look like one of those team pennants you see flying from cars’ windows on the freeway. Whether you’re facing into that wind or not is almost immaterial.

The B-58 style capsule is the sensible end result system. The problem is it’s slower to activate by a second to more, and greatly restricts the pilot’s upward & rearward visibility even when fully opened. Not so bad for a B-58. But a fatal flaw for an F-whatever.

The medium & longer term future is to have the pilot sitting in a trailer in Nevada where his/her biggest bodily risk is spilling coffee in their crotch. I suspect the ultimate tech ejection seat has already been deployed to production.

Yes, I thought that too when he told me. As well, the in this case relate design philosophy of so many Russian weapons of fewer bells and whistles and, in theory, better reliability, or, simply, cheaper.

Note that sarcasm of “bells and whistles” seriously depends on when those little extras could be critical.

OP here. This brings up more flotsam from that same conversation: ejection seat firing sequence, automatic or manual, with two cockpits.

Back guy goes first otherwise he’s fried in a 1-2 sequence; pilot has option to eject both. [I think in a recent thread it was said in trainers with a back-seat instructor the option was available to him. Correct?]

Sometimes back guy goes first, pilot sticks around a few more secs to steer plane into safer area to crash. [How often has this happened? Is that the main point?]

Don’t the ejection seats orient themselves when the chute deploys?

Yes, by aerodynamic forces, as e.c.g. describes in post #4.

Different airplanes have/had different logic based on engineering or fashion differences at the time of design.

Some general considerations:

Having non-pilots still on board after the pilots leave is pointless. Hence avoided.

Aiming the aircraft someplace “safer” is what you do before deciding to eject. Once decided, the goal is to get everyone out ASAP. Pilots staying to steer was a factor in WWII bombers where it took time for folks to gather gear, get to a hatch, & jump. Not w ejection seats.

In general better to have aft folks go first. Seat exhaust tends to blow aft due to the aircraft’s relative wind. So the backseater’s exhaust singes the fuselage then the frontseater’s exhaust singes the empty back cockpit.

When the aircraft commander says “eject” that’s an order. When anybody else days it, its a suggestion. Multiple seats can be fired with one vote, but the boss’es vote is the big one

typically the sequence is

Canopy leaves aircraft.

Seat leaves aircraft.

Stabilization devices deploy to prevent tumbling.

Pilot is forceably separated from seat which falls away.

Parachute stages deploy to slow pilot for controlled descent.

Survival kit stowed in seat falls away from pilot’s rump to dangle from pilot harness on long lanyard.

This whole process takes about 1 second, maybe 2.

No one has yet raised the obvious follow-up question: Do ejection seats in Australia orient themselves down relative to the earth?