‘For a while, most ejection seats offered both ejection methods. Dealer’s choice. If you have some time to eject, i.e. a “controlled” ejection, use the face curtain. If you’re in extremis, the lower handle is the way to go,’ David Tussey, former US Navy A-7 Corsair II pilot.
In aircraft, an ejection seat is a system designed to rescue the pilot or other crew of an aircraft in an emergency. In most designs, the aircraft canopy comes off and the seat is propelled out of the aircraft by an explosive charge or rocket motor, carrying the pilot with it. Once clear of the aircraft, the ejection seat deploys a parachute. In two seat aircraft, the seats are ejected at different angles to avoid a collision.
Before ejection seats, pilots would have to remove the aircraft canopy manually to climb and jump out.
Ejection seats can save lives.
But why do some aircraft have 2 ejection handles above the seat while some have a single ejection handle between the pilot’s legs?
‘Despite many years of development, ejection seats are fundamentally unchanged from many decades ago. They fire the pilot out of the airplane and parachute him/her safely to the ground. They do this very quickly — in a matter of a few seconds — so as to extract the pilot from the aircraft as quickly as possible.
‘The extreme action of the ejection seat along with the speed of modern jet aircraft comes with a few problems.
‘The ejection seat imparts significant G forces in order to extract the pilot in seconds. That extreme acceleration can cause injury to the spine. As the old adage goes “If you have to eject, first place your neck in the position you want it for the rest of your life.” But seriously, neck and spine injuries are common during ejections and a very serious concern. I’ve met more than one pilot how had to wear “the halo” after an ejection (metal rods drilled into your skull connected to a shoulder support collar while your spine heals…ugh).
‘The other problem with an ejection is going from the cockpit to the free air stream outside the cockpit. If you eject while going, say 400 knots, you instantly go from a stable, calm environment to one that is very hostile — 400 knot winds and very cold temperatures.
‘At almost any airspeed above 150 knots, the pilot will experience “flail injuries” from the free air stream outside the cockpit to which he is instantly subjected to. Typically, this means your arms experience dramatic, uncontrollable flailing around, often dislocating your shoulder. Also, the high-speed air strikes your face straight-on often damaging your eyes and mouth. Your eyes are battered and experience extreme bruising. Often your lips are torn.
‘Okay…so ejections are violent actions that inherently induce injuries to the pilot. What to do?
‘WAIT! There’s one more consideration. Throughout history, as soon as ejection seats were invented, pilots were waiting too late to eject. (Disappointingly, the successful ejection rate has not significantly improved despite better equipment. Pilot error.) And the vast majority of ejections occur during landings and takeoffs, where the altitude is low and the need to egress rapidly is paramount. Keep that in mind.’
‘SO… to address the “head/face damage” issue, ejection seat manufacturers created an ejection actuation system whereby the pilot pulls a curtain over his face with both hands. This is called the “face curtain” method of ejection. It requires the pilot to reach up over his/her head with both hands, and rapidly pull the face curtain over their helmet and face. For all early ejection seats (50s, 60s, and even 70s) the face curtain was the default method.
‘However, the face curtain ejection method has two problems: 1) when using the face curtain, your arms are extended up over your head, probably spread apart, and so the probability of a flail injury is exacerbated. Ugh. and 2) it takes a second or so to eject with the face curtain and that second can mean the difference between life and death. Why does it take a second? Because a fighter pilot’s hands are on the stick and the throttle. You have to release those two controls, move your hands up over your head, grab the face curtain handle, ensure your elbows are super close together, and pull the face curtain out and down approximately 12″. It is not a natural movement.
‘For ejections that are low and slow (takeoffs & landings), that extra second can spell trouble. SO…ejection seat manufacturers began putting a second ejection handle between the pilot’s legs. This helps speed up the procedure a lot; your hands are close to that handle, and you only have to pull the handle out about 1″. It couldn’t be simpler or faster. It feels natural.
‘HOWEVER, the problem with the “lower handle” method is that most pilots look down at the handle as they pull it, and then they eject with their neck bent down, and so you’re subsequently exposed to spinal injuries. That’s bad.
‘OKAY…so both the “face curtain” and the “lower handle” solve some of the problems, but also introduce others. Pros and cons. And for a while, most ejection seats offered both ejection methods. Dealer’s choice. If you have some time to eject, i.e. a “controlled” ejection, use the face curtain. If you’re in extremis, the lower handle is the way to go.
‘BUT as time went by, it became apparent that the overriding need for an ejection system was to improve the speed of the ejection sequence. That even led to a number of ejection systems employing the “through the canopy” method. Not having to “blow the canopy” saves another 1/2 second! And the need for a speedy ejection eventually led seat manufacturers to employing ONLY the lower handle method. (See note about positioning your neck for life.) Plus using the loser handle keeps your hands/arms out of the way when you’re ejecting through the canopy. (Seats even have “canopy breakers” – arms that pop up to break through the canopy.)’
‘So today, you may still see a mix of ejection seat designs, but most modern designs by Martin-Baker, EscapePac, and Stencil employ only the lower handle system, as they are striving to achieve the fastest ejection time as possible.’
Photo credit: © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons, Airman 1st Class Patrick S. Ciccarone/Released / U.S. Air Force and PH1 Terry C. Mitchell / U.S. Navy