Ejection Seat Training
I saw an Air Force buddy of mine this past week and we talked about our days in pilot training in the panhandle of Texas. We were laughing about an incident that happened during our ejection seat/parachute training to one of our fellow student pilots and I want to tell you that story.
Before we ever got to the controls of a jet trainer, we had about six weeks of ground school. We learned about jet aircraft systems, weather, trained in simulators, we were taught flying techniques, and more and then more. One day we showed up at a facility called life support. It was here we were to learn many things including how to survive being ejected from the jet at high altitudes and airspeeds. The more I learned the more I realized that such a maneuver was a bad deal all the way around for me or any other pilot. We watched videos of ejection seats with dummies in them being blown out of cockpits and then videos of real ejections caught on film. There was a device in one of the hangers that we used for ejection seat training. It was a seat from a cockpit attached to railings that went straight up. They would charge a pressure bottle under the seat and once you were strapped in you would go through the ejection sequence. It ended with you shooting up the railing as if you were ejecting, even made a loud boom. Great ride! Some ejection seats had rockets on them that would propel you away from the aircraft. The trainer I was going to be flying had one of the oldest ejection seat systems ever made. It was basically a huge shotgun shell that shot you out of the jet a fraction of a second after the canopy. If the canopy failed to come off, the seat with me in it would go through the canopy. This was the first thing I heard that made me feel a little uneasy about this ejection thing. The newer ejection seats were so good that you could be sitting on the ground completely stopped and eject straight up on a rocket, separate from your seat, have the parachute fully deploy and get one swing in it before you hit the ground. You might break a hip but you would be alive to talk about ejecting for the rest of your life. The old ejection seat on my jet required a minimum speed of 100 knots in level flight and flying 100 feet above the ground. When I heard this I imagined being in my jet and it was on fire, I was panicking trying to eject and remembering all these parameters for safe ejection at the same time. Riiiiiigggghhhhht. This was the second time I questioned this ejection thing. I put it out of my mind as we started to train for a parachute drop. The training did not involve jumping out of a plane with a parachute on like you see in the movies. Modern ejection seats do their thing so quickly that human involvement is nonexistent until you realize you made it out of the jet and your hanging in the air in your chute. Were talking a couple of seconds here with rapid deceleration, wind blast, noise, tumbling, etc. Every person I have ever talked to who ejected from a jet remembers nothing of the event until they were swinging in their harness looking at their jet falling to the ground. There was also the common sense pilot belief that we would never leave a perfectly functioning airplane. Our training was done out on the prairie by paragliding up to about 600 feet and then freefalling to the ground. The instructors had a large truck with the tether in the back on a large spool. This was attached to a parachute harness that had one of us in it. You would start out standing up with a couple of your buddies holding the sides of the parachute open to catch some wind. The truck was about 200 feet out in front of us. The person doing the paragliding had a helmet on with a radio on the inside, allowing us to hear our instructors on our way up and down. On the signal of the instructor next to us we would all start running as the truck started to move. Within 30 yards we were running through the air and climbing as the tether was let out. At 600 feet we released the tether and started our descent with our headset blaring helpful hints until impact. At the end of any successful or unsuccessful parachute jump is the inevitable contact with the earth. Whether it is dirt, sand, snow, water, mud, trees or rocks, you had to do your best to land so as to minimize your pain and suffering. We were taught that if we ejected at a high altitude the shock of a parachute opening up would turn flesh and bone into pulp. The solution to this was to freefall down to about 18000 feet where at terminal velocity you would survive the opening shock and then enjoy a 3 1/2 mile ride to the ground, saving the best part for last. They even incorporated a small oxygen bottle into the harness so you would have something to breath on the way down to 18000 feet. To prepare us for the impact with the ground, we practiced jumping off of a 10 foot platform into gravel and using the techniques taught to us. We all caught on quickly and actually enjoyed it. We were strung up on a pole and taught how to get ourselves down as though we were stuck in a tree. I remember one guy cut the wrong cords and fell so hard his knee hit him in the face. We all laughed at that. The day finally came when we got to paraglide. We were all looking forward to it. It was early February in the panhandle of Texas. The morning was cold at about 28 degrees. They took us to some land that was so flat it could have been a mold for plate glass. Not a shrub or blade of grass as far as the eye could see. The ground had a thick coat of frost on it and my boots made a squeaking noise as I walked on the frost. I was wearing the winter flight jacket I had been issued but it was not enough for the cold weather that day. I jumped up and down to keep moving and that is when I realized the ground was as hard as concrete and I was going to have to land on it shortly. I started to take in the rest of the environment and my excitement turned to fear. Parked close by was an ambulance, its motor running and a thick cloud of condensation pouring out of its exhaust. The air was still and cold. With no air movement and no heat rising up from the ground, it dawned on me that we were going to be dropping like rocks from 600 feet. As I realized that there was not one bird in sight I heard the instructor ask for a volunteer to go first. I stepped back from the crowd.
We all know that in every group of people that work together there is the consummate “pain in the ass” that seems to annoy everyone but themselves. We had one in our pilot training class. I will give him the name “Hatchet”. Hatchet could walk into a room and within seconds piss people off. Now I seemed to get along with Hatchet just fine, he annoyed me most of the time but I knew he meant no harm. He was also infatuated with my wife’s breasts. Hatchet was a short man. His eyes were perfectly level with my wife’s chest. When Hatchet would talk to her he was unable to look anywhere else. She hated the guy. Hatchet was also a cheapskate. He was one of the bachelors and I would always hear them gripe about him skipping out on bills from the bars they would haunt. I don’t know if Hatchet had anything to do with it but all 3 roommates he had in pilot training did not make it through the program.
There I was ducking behind my fellow pilot trainees hoping to heaven I wasn’t chosen to go first that frigid February morning. No sooner had that thought come to my mind when I heard Hatchet yell, “Me, me, me, I wanna go first, I deserve it after freezing my ass off here!” Hatchet’s plan was to get it over with then go sit in the warm bus that had brought us out to the site. A smart plan actually. The instructor called him up and he proceeded to get into his harness. Shortly all was set and Hatchet started to run with some others helping him get into the air. After a short run Hatchet was airborne and we all heard him yell, “Yippee!” He shot up to 600 feet and we saw the tether fall away. Hatchet dropped like a sack of potatoes, straight down in a slow rotation. The instructor said, “Oh crap!”Then started running to where he was going to come down. We all started running as well. About halfway to him, Hatchet hit the ground so hard he bounced back up about a foot before crumpling to the ground with the parachute completely covering him. The first people there took the parachute off of him. The rest of us formed a circle around him, waiting for something to happen. Hatchet was not moving. His helmet was still on with the blue visor down over his face. The instructor knelt down next to him and moved his blue visor up to see his face. His eyes were closed and I could not tell if he was breathing. Someone yelled, “Hatchet can you hear me!” Hatchet opened his eyes and looking straight up at no one yelled, “Fuck That Hurt!” What started after that was a mixed bag of laughter and obscenities all directed at Hatchet. We all walked away and when Hatchet realized that nobody was going to help him, he got up and called us all a bunch of assholes. From that day on Hatchet took on the nickname “ground pounder”. Ground pounder is the name all pilots give to anyone else who is not a pilot. We pound the sky and everyone else pounds the ground. Hatchet took it in stride and steadfastly remained a pain in the ass till the day we put on our wings. Oh by the way, we were all able to paraglide that day. I kept ducking to the end of the line and by 9:00 a.m. the sun had warmed things up a bit, the frost was gone and the air a bit warmer. Watching the ground come up at me happened faster that I would have thought but my landing was not too bad. I got up and was able to walk away. We never needed the ambulance that morning and we all eventually got back on the bus and headed back to the base. Hatchet slept all the way back, snoring the entire time. Be Safe, FlyGuy.