80 years since the first use of an ejector seat from a jet plane

As well as being a time of terrible destruction, wars are also a time of rapid innovation. An example of this occurred on 13th January 1942.

The ejector seat is designed to enable a pilot or aircrew to exit a plane in an emergency – an explosive charge propels the seat out of the aircraft, and the pilot with it. Everyone knows about ejector seats and how they work, but do you know how long they have been in use?

The first attempt to create an ‘assisted escape’ for a pilot happened as early as 1910 when Everard Calthrop, who also invented an early version of the parachute, patented a bungee-assisted seat which used compressed air to eject the pilot, but not his seat. The first design with a detachable seat was invented in the late 1920’s by Romanian Anastase Dragomir. It was first tested successfully at Paris-Orly airport on 25th August 1929.

But none of these systems was in use by the military at the beginning of the Second World War, and the pilot’s only means of escape was to jump clear of a plane (bail out). Sometimes this was difficult because the pilot was injured, or the escape route wasn’t clear; and with the advent of the jet engine the g-forces were too great for a bail out. Clearly a better way of escape from an incapacitated aircraft was needed.

Heinkel He 280

Heinkel and SAAB both worked independently on the project, using compressed air to eject the seat and pilot. The first system was used in a prototype jet-engined fighter – the Heinkel He 280 – in 1940, but it was not actually used in action until 1942. On 13th January of that year a German test pilot, Helmut Schenk, found the controls of his plane had iced up and were inoperable. He was flying a He 280 which was being used to test new jets for the Fieseler Fi 103, so the original jets had been removed and his He 280 was towed aloft during a heavy snow storm. When Schenk realised at 2,400m that he had no control over the aircraft, he made history when he jettisoned the towline and pressed the ejection button.

Still from film of the test flight in which Schenk made the first emergency use of an ejector seat

After Schenk’s emergency use of the system the first operational ejector seats were installed into the Heinkel He 219 Uhn night fighter later that same year. The system was crude, with the seat sliding along rails as it was ejected, but it worked. The innovation saved the lives of many German pilots; at the same time, the pilots of Allied jet planes were either unable to exit the plane or were likely to be killed while trying to escape. By 1944 bizarre reports were being received by the British Air Ministry of sightings of the pilots of German jets being fired into the sky as their planes crashed. It was the capture and investigation of seats from crashed Heinkels which led the Allies to develop their own ejector seats.

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