Ejection Seats 101

What’s the protocol for using an ejection seat?

The Speed Explainer Column brought to you by AT&T.

A military jet crashed into a residential street in San Diego on Monday, killing at least three people and destroying three houses and four vehicles. The pilot, who had ejected himself from the cockpit, landed safely in a tree. An eyewitness wondered whether the Marine could instead have “turned [the plane] around and put it in the ocean.” What’s the protocol for using an ejection seat?

It depends on the condition of the aircraft. If the pilot is in control of the plane but determines that a crash is inevitable, he should head to the closest unpopulated area, reduce speed, and then eject. If, however, the pilot has lost control of the plane’s basic functioning and can no longer alter its path (in military parlance, the aircraft is “not flying, but falling”), then he should prioritize escaping before impact. From news reports, it seems the incident in San Diego falls into the latter category, which would absolve the pilot of blame. While the Marine Corps provided some information on standard procedure, the Navy refused to comment, since there may be an investigation.

All Marine and Naval pilots receive training on in-flight emergency protocol as well as instructions on how actually to launch themselves out of a plane at the moment of crisis.

The pilot involved in this week’s crash was flying an F/A-18 D, which uses a Navy Air Crew Common Ejection Seat. Before pulling the ejection handle on this device, the pilot should have his chin elevated 10 degrees, the back of his head pressed against the headrest, his elbows to his sides, shoulders and back pressed against the seat, and his heels on the floor. Once the chair activates, a motor located beneath the seat fires and launches the pilot vertically, about 400 feet. His parachute opens, and then his seat falls to the ground. From the time the pilot grips the handle to when the parachute unfurls takes about two seconds.

The first ejection seats, powered by compressed air, were developed by the Germans during World War II. In January 1942, a man named Helmut Schenck escaped from his iced-up plane using an ejection seat, marking the first known emergency ejection. Prior to the 1940s, the only way to escape a plane was to jump out the door with a parachute, an especially difficult process in the case of injury.

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Explainer thanks 2nd Lt. Joshua Diddams of the Marine Corps, Steven Levin of Levin and Perconti, andAndrew J. Martin of Martin-Baker.