This is a slow week, so I am thinking I will drop in a bit of fluff from personal observation. First a little background:
Back when I was in high school in Granbury I thought I would add a little adventure to my life by joining the Navy Reserve. They had a good deal. I could start my training while I was still going to school, and I would not have any active duty obligation until after graduation. So in the summer before my senior year I was off to monthly training sessions at the Naval Air Station Dallas. It was an adventure.
I was in a fighter squadron, because I thought fighters were really neat. They went fast, and they were always getting into combat with other fighters. It did not take me long to figure out I would never get to fly in a fighter. With few exceptions jet fighters were single-seat, and somebody always had to be there to fly the airplane. That left me working on the flight line and watching the fighters zoom off into the wild blue yonder.
But there were the training classes. We reservists spent half our time working on the flight line and the other half sitting in classrooms while experienced petty officers explained the real world to us. And I will never forget my first class, my first bit of instruction, my first useful skill. They taught me how to blow myself out of an airplane.
Back then the fighters had these Martin-Baker ejection seats. I could pull up Wikipedia and get the full factual details, but I think this time I will just wing it and draw from 50-year-old memories. It worked like this:
The first presumption is your airplane is currently flying, and the second presumption is that shortly it will not be flying, and you have to get out before the second part. The first thing you need do is take your feet off the rudder pedals, because they are not coming out with you, and neither will your feet if they are still resting on the rudder pedals when you pull the handle. Put your feet on the steps attached to the front of the ejection seat, and sit straight upright. Look straight ahead. Reach above your head and grasp the handle that hopefully is there but you have not given much thought to until this moment. Pull the handle down and in front of your face as quickly and as hard as you can. Martin-Baker will take care of all the rest.
You are sitting straight up, because you are about to get a spine compression the likes of which you have never experience before. That is unless you have previously fallen ten feet on a concrete floor on your butt. The first part of the action activates an explosive charge that removes the airplane canopy. You want that, because if this part does not work you will go straight up through the Plexiglas. The rumor has it that the top of the seat back will break the Plexiglas before your head has a chance to. About the time the canopy becomes history a 105-mm gun cartridge in the back of the seat will go off and drive a piston and the seat and you about a hundred feet straight up. And that’s only the fun part.
If you have been a good boy and followed all your instructor’s advice, you will have, all this time, been sitting on a well-packed parachute. The ejection seat does not have a seat cushion. It has a parachute, and that parachute is packed has hard a a brick. Furthermore, if you have been extra observant in your classroom lectures you will already be strapped into the parachute.
And there you have it. The laws of physics will take care of everything else. Everything else except separating you from the seat. I have been told there are automatic systems that also handle this function. If you are below 10,000 feet your 5-point harness will release in short order. If you are above 10,000 feet you will stay attached to the seat until you get to 10,000 feet. It would not do to open your parachute at, say, 30,000 feet and then freeze before you got to the ground. I never saw any such automatic mechanism, myself. It all looked very manual to me. You just let go of the ejection handle and, if your arms have not been broken by the wind blast, you reach for your belly button and pull the 5-point release handle. Then you will separate from the seat, and the parachute will open automatically upon separation.
You hope. And this is where my observation comes into the story.
I have previously written about paratroopers, who jump out of perfectly good airplanes. They do this (or used to do this) because the quickest way to get to a battlefield behind enemy lines is by airplane, and the safest way to get from the airplane to the ground at the battlefield is to just jump right out of the airplane before it lands. Besides, there is often no place for the airplane to land.
Anyhow, the paratroopers would line up in the airplane and go quickly out the door, several hundred feet above the ground. The parachute release mechanism (rip cord) was attached to a static line that pulled the cord as the jumpers exited the airplane. And that was all there was to it. Physics took care of the rest. Except…
Except when the parachute did not open. This did not happen frequently, but there was a backup in case the parachute did not open. Each jumper wore a reserve parachute. When it became apparent there was a problem with first parachute the jumper pulled the handle on the second parachute and saved his life.
Now notice a difference. The fighter pilot does not carry a backup parachute. If the first and only parachute (seat cushion) does not work the pilot becomes a statistic. So, why doesn’t the pilot carry a reserve? Because it’s extra bulk and weight in the cockpit for one. But the paratrooper does carry a reserve parachute. Why? And here is my answer, which I have considered these many years:
The paratrooper gets into the airplane with the full expectation of not coming back to the airfield for a landing. The fighter pilot gets into the airplane with the expectation (somewhat optimistically) of coming back to the airfield, landing and climbing out of the airplane. The pilot does not take off with the expectation of parachuting to the ground. The parachute for the pilot is a backup mechanism, and the reserve parachute for the paratrooper is a backup mechanism. Each person carries a backup for the unexpected. There is no backup for the expected.
And that’s my story for today. I will provide a bit of an epilogue. I did get to fly in a Navy patrol bomber, and I did get to use my parachute training. That is the training of how to put on a parachute. We did not put them on during the flight. Unless somebody is shooting at you there is no expectation of needing to use the parachute. In normal circumstances most accidents happen during takeoff and landing, and a parachute is no good in these circumstances. The general rule is to stay with the aircraft unless there is an uncontrollable fire or catastrophic structural failure. Ditching in the ocean is preferable to jumping into the ocean. Loss of engine power (running out of fuel or engine failure) over very rough terrain would be another occasion to jump. A guy in my division on the Randolph had gone through a jump, but I forget the circumstances.
The other occasion I have worn a parachute was when riding in a glider. Since gliders never run out of fuel the catastrophic structural failure case is the only occasion for using the parachute. So far I have missed that part of the life experience. It’s probably all for the better.