“EJECT! EJECT!”—John Nichol on Escaping Doomed Aircraft

John Nichol, Royal Air Force veteran whose Tornado GR1 was shot down by a man-portable SA-14 missile during the Gulf War on 1991-01-17, ejected from the plane, landed behind enemy lines, and was captured by Iraqi forces and imprisoned until the end of the war, has recently published (2023-05-25) EJECT! EJECT!, a history of the development of crew escape systems for high-performance aircraft and collection of stories of those who have used this hardware over the years when finding themselves “Out of altitude, out of airspeed, out of options”. In this hour long video, he discusses ejection stories with Ward Carroll, who flew F-14 Tomcats for fifteen years in the U.S. Navy.

The print edition of this book, published in the U.K., is a very expensive (US$ 30) paperback with a long delivery time quoted by Amazon U.S. The Kindle edition is available immediately and half the price.


Escape from an aircraft that was mortally wounded began as an exercise back in WWI. Since then, aircraft have become more complex, and most importantly, far faster, making the “ejection” issue more complex. Today the question broaches escape trajectory, which will be dependent upon speed, altitude, and attitude, plus physical things like canopy construction, height of tail, time-distance calculations of the ejection occurring, beginning with the crew member’s initiation.

Simple jumping out was the original approach. This held through WWII, even though WWII fighters developed significantly higher speeds. With the advent of the jet engine, new issues came to the front. Clearing the airframe was chief among them (like clearing a 400kt tail located about 20’ behind you). Initial approaches were to “fire” the seat using a shell up in the air hard enough to (a) break the canopy, and (b) toss the occupant high enough quickly enough to clear the rapidly approaching tail section. These seats culminated in the Martin-Baker seats of F4/A4/A6 era, using a 40mm cannon shell to eject the seat. Lots of back injuries resulted but the aircrew were at least alive. Crews of airframes like the Buff had peculiar issues, with the “front seaters” (pilot & copilot) being on one level (literally) of the plane, and navigator/bombadier/weapons operator being on another. This necessitated a system wherein the upper deck ejected upwards, and the lower deck downwards.

With the arrival of the ACES II seats, some of these issues were solved - at least for the fighters. ACES seats worked on a principle of drag chute to exit the aircraft, then rocket propulsion to orient the seat vertically and lift it. high enough to be able to deploy a parachute successfully. This meant a fighter could now execute the new “low level” attacks modern tactics called for and if the aircraft was hit, the crew could still successfully eject. Indeed, a modern ACES seat will save a crew even if they eject inverted - provided there is enough ground clearance for the seat to get out and the rockets to orient the seat upwards and fire the lifting rockets.

I do not know enough about foreign jets to know if they copied the ACES system, but would expect Western militaries do, while the communist ones may not, the lives of crew being a lot less “valuable” an asset to them.


Strangely, after the end of Cold War, when ex-Soviet and U.S. airmen began to compare notes, their former adversaries advised their U.S. counterparts, “You’re losing way too many people in ejections”. It turns out that the way the Soviet system worked, there were design bureaux who worked on nothing but ejection seats and received steady funding every year under the plan. They would continue development, testing, and refinement year in and year out, and these changes would filter back into the operational fleet as block upgrades or regular modification orders as part of preventive maintenance.

In the U.S., by contrast, seat procurement would only undertake design of a new seat when expansion of the performance envelope or some particular property of an airframe (for example, a tall T-tail like the F-104, which the seat had to clear) required it. Otherwise, an existing seat would be used, and generally a given seat design would remain in use over the life of an aircraft type. This meant that advances such as computer sensing of aircraft attitude and acceleration to permit, for example, escape from inverted attitudes at relatively low altitudes, would not filter back into earlier generation aircraft while, in the Soviet system, it would be installed as a retrofit.

After confirming the statistics were correct, a more Soviet approach was adopted in the ACES and Martin Baker seat development and deployment cycles, moving toward continual upgrades over service life.


Didn’t know that. I did know the same seat pretty much stayed in the same aircraft for its life. So I had friends who flew F-4’s and would not eject unless ABSOLUTELY DIRE STRAITS. One of them had a hung 6-pack of snakes that the front hooks let go but couldn’t get the rears to unlock, so it hung nose down. He refused to eject but gave his back seater the option to get out, then proceeded to land at DaNang with the hung 6-pack. And lived to tell about it. Those old M-B seats were much hated.




Backseater interview: