How does an ejection seat work in a fighter aircraft?

Before World War 2, the only way for a pilot to escape an incapacitated aircraft was to bail out! He had no other way than to jump, but that was almost impossible due to the compression forces, the high flow of air past the aircraft and the possibility of fatal injuries. However, during the World War, as the need had risen, ejection systems were developed. Heinkel and SAAB developed the earliest ejection seats. They were powered by compressed air and the first aircraft equipped with this system was the Heinkel He 280 prototype jet-engined fighter.

Modern-day supersonic aircraft make it impossible for the pilot to jump out of the cockpit on his own. His survival depends on split-second maneuvers which he cannot execute himself, given the high speed of the fighter aircraft. The seat, complete with the occupant, carrying a parachute has to be ejected mechanically by a rocket motor as well as the ejection gun. All that the pilot has to do is pull a handle located between his knees.

The canopy opens and within a tenth of second further maneuvers take place, and the pilot is on his way to safety. The combined force of the gun and the rocket underneath the seat propels the seated pilot to a height of some 90 meters. This is high enough to allow the drogue (small) parachute and thereafter the main parachute to open fully. It hardly takes more than a second for them to be deployed. The drogue meanwhile detaches itself from the main parachute. Simultaneously, the time-release unit releases the pilot’s safety harness from the seat, which falls away without causing the pilot any obstruction.

The seat is placed in a cockpit and attached to rails via rollers on the edges of the seat. These rails guide the ejection of the seat. The seats contain a catapult, which on initiation by the pilot, fires the seat up. The rocket’s function is to propel the seat further upwards. A part of the whole ejection procedure is the opening of the canopy before the actual lift of the seat. All these occur in a highly synchronized manner to allow the pilot to escape the aircraft safely.

The ejected pilot has a pack of several aids to assist his survival. If he comes down in a lake or the sea, a rubber life raft inflates, and he also has the normal life jacket to keep him afloat. Another important aid is a radio beacon that sends out a distress signal enabling search aircraft and ships to locate the pilot. Besides, there is a small food packet and a water bottle. For the aircraft carrier’s pilot, fishing equipment is also provided.

It was thought earlier that ejection at supersonic speeds would be impossible. Numerous tests were carried out, and this dream finally did become a reality. Pilots have ejected successfully at speeds much higher than the speed of light. The upward acceleration of the ejected pilot and seat is between 12g and 20g, and pilots have safely beaten dead aircraft at heights of thousands of feet above the ground.