Fighter jet ejection seat dangers

I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while, but kept forgetting.

Someone related a story about the late, great slugger and Korean War pilot, Ted Williams. The story basically said that Ted opted to land his seriously damaged aircraft rather than eject from it because he knew that if he used the ejection seat it would break his legs and therefore jeopordize his baseball career.


Was this true about ejection seats – they broke your legs? They couldn’t design something better?

Is it STILL true?

Well…one would break your legs if your legs weren’t strapped in and you were stretching them out when you hit the ejection lever. Especially on a B-52 which ejects you down.

However in normal use one wouldn’t break your legs. Pilots in planes with ejection seats have their legs strapped into place, only by somehow defeating this mechanism would the legs be placed in danger. I can’t see any pilot doing this however, they know what’s going on and why their legs are strapped. (then again people do some pretty stupid things)

What is does do is severely compress your vertebrae, which is why pilots have a lifetime limit on the total number of times they can eject before they are permanently grounded. This is more than likely what Ted Williams was refering to. He probably figured he’d lose flexibility in his back, and not be able to swing as well.

I don’t know anything about Ted Williams, but this site confirms that in some early seats without leg restraints, a high-speed ejection could lead to the air pressure forcing your legs upwards and cause at least some damage. (They had air shields, but they weren’t 100% effective)

Later seats secured the legs with nylon cord, though I recall reading about one case where a pilot with a bad knee disconnected it before ejection, as it might have been furthur hurt when reeled in.

Didn’t know about the ejection limit, but it makes sense. That’s the result of trying to get you moving quickly away from your high speed vehicle in as short a time as possible.

I’ve known 3 cases of crew ejection and in each there was a least a moderate neck or back injury that required a period of recuperation.

Ejection may look cool in the movies but its the second to the last thing that a pilot wants to do. Essentially, you have an expolsive charge under your seat that is going to blow you quickly away from your doomed plane. That means clearing everything around you including the canopy. Not a lot of tolerance for error! The likelihood of some kind of injury is very high including injury to the shoulders and arms if not properly tucked in. You had better be in the correct position or the ejection may use you to create a new crater in the ground.

Your bosses are probably going to find out what caused the plane to become doomed and if you bailed out unnecessarilly they are not likely to trust you with another $20+ million aircraft. Say goodbye to your career as a fighter pilot.

Again, the movies and real life often don’t jibe.

During the Korean war Jets and the devices to get you the hell out of them were still immature technology. The early to mid fifties were particularly dangerous years for military aviation. 1955 was the worst year ever for naval aviation and Tom Wolfe includes some chilling statistics in The Right Stuff which set the tone for the book. Someone who intended to make a career as a naval aviator had close to a 1 in 4 chance of not surviving to retirement and nearly half of all career aviators would have an ejection at some point. Chuck Yeager or one of the other test pilots referred to using the early ejection seats as “committing suicide to avoid getting killed.”

It wasn’t my observation that someone who ejected would damage his career. Safety materials always stressed the crew was more valuable than the plane. Posters showing an ejection had captions like “Know when to get out, then get out!” My squadron lost two F-14s when crews ejected, one freak accident on a carrier landing and one engine flameout which put the plane in a flat spin. In both cases the crews were put back on flight status as soon as the flight surgeon said they were healthy.

Fortunately modern ejection seats like the GRU-7 are much better designed than in the old ones. Of the four men who ejected from those two planes the only injury worth noting was a sprained neck that healed quickly. The pilot of the first plane had his head bent forward slightly as he was reaching for the face curtain ejection handle but the RIO had already pulled the crotch cord. One of the sayings I learned after that was “if it says ‘Grumman’ on the rudder pedals it had better say ‘Martin-Baker’ on the seat.” :smiley:

Hollywood usually does get it wrong. Goose’s ejection into the caonopy of his F-14 is a virtual impossibility. The ejection sequence starts with shielded mild detonatig cord that blows all the hooks holding the canopy rails to the fuselage. Then the canopy is blown off using the same strut that opens it under normal operations using a compressed nitrogen charge. The canopy is plexiglass about an inch thick and the whole thing weighs about 300lbs. 20mm bullets will glance off it so you don’t want a rocket powered chair trying to put your head through it. The canopy is thown back and pulls a cord in the turtledeck of the cockpit area. Only when the canopy is far enough away does the cord release a safety that allows the seat motors to fire. Rear seat motor fires then the front.