A Brief History
On January 13, 1942, German test pilot Helmut Schenk successfully used an ejection seat in a Heinkel He 280 jet fighter that was being developed for the German Luftwaffe, becoming the first pilot in history to eject from a plane in such a manner. Thus, the ejection seat became one more of the many technological innovations produced by Nazi engineers during World War II in Germany’s failed effort to conquer much of the world.
The He 280 was never put into service as it came in second to the Messerschmitt Me 262 in the race to become the first operational jet-powered fighter plane. Only 9 were built, though its top speed of 512 mph and 2 x 20mm cannons would have made it a potent foe for Allied bombers.
Whereas today’s seats are rocket propelled, the ejection seat used by Schenk was powered by compressed air. Even with all the advancements that have been made in the meantime, the violent nature of being blasted out of an airplane, sometimes at very high speeds, often leaves pilots injured or even killed. (Modern day pilots ignominiously refer to the ejection seats manufactured by Martin-Baker as “Martin-Baker back breakers.”)
Ejection seats for aircraft were considered even before World War I, with experiments involving elastic bungees! Testing continued up to World War II, with SAAB of Sweden and Heinkel of Germany leading the way.
The first operational warplane with ejection seats was the Heinkel He 219, a German twin-engine, propeller-driven night fighter in use from 1943 to 1945. Capable of speeds up to 385 mph and armed with 6 x 20mm cannons and 2 x 30mm cannons and guided to its targets by radar, the “Uhu,” as it was known, was formidable. About 300 of these night fighters were built. The first jet-powered fighter aircraft to be routinely fitted with ejection seats was the single-engine Heinkel He 162.
Today, when a jet pilot ejects safely from a disabled airplane it might seem quite routine, but it was not always that way. Ejection capsules and seats that stay attached to the pilot have been used, and even emergency parachutes for small planes have been developed so the pilot does not even have to bail out. Modern seats are often designed to operate as “0-0” seats, meaning that ejection can take place at 0 mph and at 0 feet of altitude. The tremendous force needed to propel a pilot and his seat under those circumstances makes for a scary prospect indeed.
Ejection seats have been in relatively recent headlines. On December 24, 2014, while in support of U.S. efforts to attack Islamist extremists known as ISIS, a Jordanian Air Force F-16 fighter pilot was forced to eject over Syria. Unfortunately, he was captured by the enemy.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever ejected from an airplane? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cross, James. Punching Out: Stories of High-Speed Ejections. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011.
Sharman, Sara. Sir James Martin: The Authorized Biography of the Martin-Baker Ejection Seat Pioneer. Haynes Pubns, 1996.