How Ejection Seats Work

Bailing Out
This ACES II ejection seat has a middle pull handle used to activate the ejection sequence.
This ACES II ejection seat has a middle pull handle used to activate the ejection sequence.
Photo courtesy Goodrich Corporation

When a crewmember lifts the pull handle or yanks the face curtain down on the ejection seat, it sets off a chain of events that propels the canopy away from the plane and thrusts the crewmember safely out. Ejecting from a plane takes no more than four seconds from the time the ejection handle is pulled. The exact amount of time depends on the seat model and the crewmember's body weight.

Pulling the ejection handle on a seat sets off an explosive cartridge in the catapult gun, launching the ejection seat into the air. As the seat rides up the guide rails, a leg-restraint system is activated. These leg restraints are designed to protect the crewmember's legs from getting caught or harmed by debris during the ejection. An underseat rocket motor provides the force that lifts the crewmember to a safe height, and this force is not outside normal human physiological limitations, according to documents from Goodrich Corporation, a manufacturer of ejection seats used by the U.S. military and NASA.

Prior to the ejection system launching, the canopy has to be jettisoned to allow the crewmember to escape the cockpit. There are at least three ways that the canopy or ceiling of the airplane can be blown to allow the crewmember to escape:

  • Lifting the canopy - Bolts that are filled with an explosive charge are detonated, detaching the canopy from the aircraft. Small rocket thrusters attached on the forward lip of the canopy push the transparency out of the way of the ejection path, according to Martin Herker, a former physics teacher who has written about ejection seats and maintains a Web site describing ejection seats. (Click here to go to Herker's site.)
  • Shattering the canopy - To avoid the possibility of a crewmember colliding with a canopy during ejection, some egress systems are designed to shatter the canopy with an explosive. This is done by installing a detonating cord or an explosive charge around or across the canopy. When it explodes, the fragments of the canopy are moved out of the crewmember's path by the slipstream.
  • Explosive hatches - Planes without canopies will have an explosive hatch. Explosive bolts are used to blow the hatch during an ejection.

The seat, parachute and survival pack are also ejected from the plane along with the crewmember. Many seats, like Goodrich's ACES II (Advanced Concept Ejection Seat, Model II), have a rocket motor fixed underneath the seat. After the seat and crewmember have cleared the cockpit, this rocket will lift the crewmember another 100 to 200 feet (30.5 to 61 m), depending on the crewmember's weight. This added propulsion allows the crewmember to clear the tail of the plane. As of January 1998, there had been 463 ejections worldwide using the ACES II system, according to the U.S. Air Force. More than 90 percent of those ejections were successful. There were 42 fatalities.

The parachutes opening on a Martin-Baker ejection seat during a test. The small parachute at the top is called the drogue parachute.
Photo courtesy NASA

Once out of the plane, a drogue gun in the seat fires a metal slug that pulls a small parachute, called a drogue parachute, out of the top of the chair. This slows the person's rate of descent and stabilizes the seat's altitude and trajectory. After a specified amount of time, an altitude sensor causes the drogue parachute to pull the main parachute from the pilot's chute pack. At this point, a seat-man-separator motor fires and the seat falls away from the crewmember. The person then falls back to Earth as with any parachute landing.

Modes of Ejection

In the ACES II ejection seat produced by Goodrich Corporation, there are three possible ejection modes. The one used is determined by the aircraft's altitude and airspeed at the time of ejection. These two parameters are measured by the environmental sensor and recovery sequencer in the back of the ejection seat.

The environmental sensor senses the airspeed and altitude of the seat and sends data to the recovery sequencer. When the ejection sequence begins, the seat travels up the guide rails and exposes pitot tubes. Pitot tubes, named for physicist Henri Pitot, are designed to measure air-pressure differences to determine the velocity of the air. Data about the air flow is sent to the sequencer, which then selects from the three modes of ejections:

  • Mode 1: low altitude, low speed - Mode 1 is for ejections at speeds of less than 250 knots (288 mph / 463 kph) and altitudes of less than 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). The drogue parachute doesn't deploy in mode 1.
  • Mode 2: low altitude, high speed - Mode 2 is for ejections at speeds of more than 250 knots and altitudes of less than 15,000 feet.
  • Mode 3: high altitude, any speed - Mode 3 is selected for any ejection at an altitude greater than 15,000 feet.