Surviving a fall from a crippled aircraft requires more than a leap of faith.
Death in wartime comes in many guises, but few battle deaths are more horrible to contemplate than being trapped inside a critically damaged combat aircraft, waiting either to be engulfed in flames or crushed by its inevitable impact with the ground. That this nightmare need no longer haunt the sleep of contemporary military aviators is the result of at least eight decades of continuous re search and development by a band of scientists, engineers, and human guinea pigs–all dedicated to the proposition that military air crews whose mounts stumble and fall should live to fly another day. Yet beyond the circle of fliers who owe these researchers and developers so much, the history of the parachute is virtually unknown. The chute’s development took place in reverse order. The two essential acts required to avoid the fatal consequences of an air crash are getting clear of the plane and then deploying the chute. But, in the actual sequence of events, the parachute came first and specialized means of escaping the plane followed in its historical slipstream. The results speak for themselves. It is remarkable that should a modern super sonic jet suffer catastrophic failure while traveling nearly twice the speed of sound at the very edge of space, its crew stands an excellent chance of walking away from the experience. This triumph of ergonomics becomes more remarkable when we look back when there was absolutely no way out of a crippled airplane.
Consider the fate of Major Raoul Lufbery, a transplanted Frenchman who was at the time of his death America’s leading World War I fighter ace, with 16 kills. On May 19, 1918, he took off in a Nieuport to intercept a nearby German Albatros, only to have a burst of machine gun fire hit his plane’s fuel tank. As his comrades below watched with horror, Lufbery’s plane burst into flames, which began working their way back toward the cockpit. They could soon see the pilot climbing out and struggling toward the Nieuport’s tail. But the fire continued to spread, and when it reached him Lufbery jumped from a height of several hundred feet, only to be found dead, impaled on a picket fence.
Lufbery had no parachute. No American pilot did, nor did any English or French pilot for that matter. Lufbery’s choice was potentially all pilots’ choice a situation made all the more galling when para chute canopies were first seen blooming from damaged German fighters in the spring of 1918. Ernst Udet, Germany’s second leading ace behind Manfred von Richthofen, was saved by such a parachute, as were many other German aviators. Meanwhile, Allied fliers were given excuses rather than parachutes. Eddie Rickenbacker, who would take Lufbery’s place as the American ace-of aces, became enraged at a major who told him, “If you pilots had parachutes, then you’d be inclined to use them at the slightest pretext, and the Air Service would lose planes….” Rickenbacker’s anger was understandable. He knew, as did every other combat pilot, that there were Allied personnel routinely going aloft with parachutes as standard issue. They were the occupants of the tethered kite balloons vital to artillery spotting, and parachutes would save more than 800 of them during the war.
The parachute was nothing new. The first successful descent using one took place on October 22, 1796, when Andre Jacques Garnerin was released from a balloon at a height of approximately 3,000 feet near Paris. Garnerin not only lived to make a series of other jumps–one from as high as 8,000 feet–but in 1802 his wife Jeanne-Genevieve, not to be outdone, became the first woman parachutist. Successful descents in America began as early as 1819, and by 1905 Charles Broadwick had developed a working chute that could be strapped to the body rather than being joined to the user by a tether, as was typical up to that time. Chutes were not immediately adopted by pilots of the newly invented airplane, some said because they might reflect negatively on their faith in the craft. By March 1912, however, Albert Berry had successfully parachuted from a Benoist pusher biplane approximately 1,500 feet above Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Chutes for airplane pilots and crew were hardly well developed, but they could have been made widely available to American pilots had a determined effort been made by the Department of the Army to perfect them. A combination of factors ensured that this did not happen quickly. Air combat was an unexpected phenomenon when World War I broke out in August 1914. It was not until the spring of 1915, when Roland Carros and Anthony Fokker figured out means by which planes could fire through the arc of their whirling propellers, that com bat aircraft became truly lethal weapons of war. Another year was required before appropriate air combat tactics were developed and operations carried out in sufficient numbers to produce significant casualties. Meanwhile, pilots seemed to remain relatively oblivious to parachutes, even though they were plainly in use by balloonists.
By mid-1916 it became obvious to all concerned just what a deadly business fighting in the air had become. Air frames covered with dope-impregnated canvas were extremely flammable and so fragile that they were prone to break up during the maneuvers required for effective air combat. The skies were now divided between a few aces, who had survived long enough to learn the tricks of the trade, and flocks of new comers, who could barely fly, much less fight. New pilots were basically prey, and their chances of surviving more than about six weeks were very low. Yet all combat pilots, no matter how skillful, would have probably agreed with Harold Rosher of the Royal Navy’s Air Service when he wrote, “If one goes on flying long enough, one is bound to get huffed in the end.”
It was under these circumstances that pilots rediscovered the parachute and began clamoring for them. American flier John McGavock Grider, doomed to be shot down and killed a few weeks later, epitomized their feelings when he wrote in his war diary: “Oh for a parachute!… I haven’t a chance, I know it and it’s the eternal waiting that’s killing me.”
Plainly there was some mindless official hesitation of the sort Rickenbacker encountered, but also there were real technical problems. Tests showed balloon chutes to be too bulky, heavy, and prone to snag on the aircraft’s many appendages. Even the Germans, who could least afford to lose trained pilots, did not manage to perfect and install the Heinecke chute–a transitional static line type–until only seven months before war’s end. Meanwhile, the armistice would find all the Allies hard at work on their own aircraft para chutes, while the British and French had models in the early stages of production. But this did not assuage the bitterness of the pilots.
In the United States angry voices like those of Rickenbacker and bomber commander General Billy Mitchell ensured that work on chutes would continue. Tests at Wright Field, Ohio, showed that automatic opening devices such as static lines were neither necessary nor desirable, contrary to most opinions overseas. The decision to concentrate on the free-on-the-body type parachute was very significant because it marked, in the words of C.G. Sweeting, “The beginning of a period in which America would lead the world in parachute development.” Work done at Wright and later McCook Field during the four years following the Armistice led to basically all the principles that would guide parachute design through World War II and well beyond.
Early experiments using the free-types focused on adding strength to chutes. A 170-pound life-size figure known as Dummy Sam was used to simulate a human during test drops. The staff, led by Major Edward L. Hoffman, learned quickly. Different sized canopies were tried; varying shroud line lengths were tested; the pack and harness were carefully examined; and means of damping oscillations or swinging were studied, with special attention given to various vents in the canopy.
This work bore fruit in the Type A parachute, which on April 28, 1919, was tested by Leslie “Ski-Hi” Irvin from a height of 1,500 feet. Irvin broke his ankle in the process, but recovered in time to manufacture 300 A chutes, which he sold to the U.S. government for $500 each. The A employed a backpack design and a 28 foot diameter canopy of Japanese silk, with a strength rating of 60 pounds per inch. Significantly, the chute’s forty shroud lines terminated in four webs, each of which could be grasped to spill air and allow for a degree of maneuverability. Operation was simple: a jerk on the ripcord opened the pack flaps, and a spring-loaded device ejected the chute into the airstream.
In 1920 the A was redesigned so it could be worn as a seat pack. The resulting Type S had a smaller, 24-foot diameter canopy; was more compact and lighter; and served as a cushion for the pilot. There would be further modifications, and pilots were also provided with reserve chutes. But the basic Type S served as the model for most American and many aviation parachutes over the next two decades. The only major improvement prior to World War II would be the eventual introduction of synthetic fiber. Nylon was not only stronger and a better shock absorber than silk, but also promised to eliminate America’s strategic reliance on the Far East as a supply source. The S was plainly a chute far ahead of its time. Nevertheless, the Army Air Corps and many of its pilots hesitated. Then on March 13, 1922, Lieutenant Frederick Niedermeyer took off for a n aerial demonstration at McCook Field with out wearing a chute, because the seat in his experimental pursuit plane was too high to accommodate an S type. As a gathering of fellow aviators watched, Niedermeyer’s plane disintegrated during maneuvers. Niedermeyer fell to his death. The accident instantly made parachute proponents of the audience. Prompted by this tragedy, Major Hoff man traveled to Washington , D.C., and urged General Mason Patrick, chief of the Army’s air arm, to issue a regulation making chutes mandatory for all army fliers. Between 1925 and 1930 the army bought about 1,000 chutes a year. Pilots, at last, had a golden parachute. Or so it seemed.
In fact, very soon they would be barely safer than before the development of the parachute. Combat aviators were destined to be caught again in a lethal snare. For as the top speeds of their aircraft rose, their chances of safely clearing the plane during an emergency diminished accordingly. Cold statistics speak for themselves. At 170 miles per hour the success rate of unassisted escapes is around 75 percent; at 230 mph the chances drop to 25 percent; and at 330 mph the success rate is 2 percent. By 1940 most fighter planes could go faster than 330 mph.
The coming of World War II and the reintroduction of lethal intent into military aviation made these statistics part of the hard facts of life facing combat fliers. Under optimal conditions it was sometimes possible to invert a damaged aircraft, thrust the stick for ward, and literally be catapulted to safety. But all too often the plane resisted control or was gyrating wildly. Interviews with aircrews returning from prisoner of war camps revealed that at least 20 percent of those who escaped their planes by parachuting had been seriously impaired in their efforts to get out by high G-forces–stress from increased gravity because of rapid acceleration as their damaged planes fell toward earth. There were also many instances of crews hopelessly pinned in their spinning planes, owing their lives only to the fact that the fuselages broke up in mid-air before it was too late. These, of course, were the lucky ones and quite probably the minority. There are no precise statistics. But add to these impediments the hazards of jammed hatches and canopies, injury, disorientation, and fire and it appears quite likely that more than half of the men caught in doomed air craft during World War II never escaped.
The Germans were the first to react. As in World War I, they could least afford to lose pilots. But perhaps of more immediate significance, Germany led the world in technologies, such as jet and rocket propulsion, and was destined to produce the first planes that flew so fast that no pilot could hope to get out unassisted. German designers quickly realized that at speeds exceed ing 500 mph, escape would only be possible by propelling the crew forcibly away from the airframe, either in a capsule or in their seats. While the former alternative was explored (preceding the escape module of America ‘s General Dynamics F-111 by more than 20 years), the ejection seat was deemed most practical. A Heinkel test pilot, Schenk, could attest to that. On January 13, 1942, he took off in an experimental He-280 pulsejet prototype, only to have the jet ice up, to lose control and ejected in his compressed air-powered seat at 7,900 feet–thereby immortalizing himself as the first man to be saved using such a safety device. Further work led developers to replace compressed air with explosive cartridges, and by war’s end virtually all of Germany’s advanced fighters and fighter-bombers (including the Messerschmitt Me-262, Heinkel He-162, Arado Ar-234 jets, the piston-driven He-219, and Dornier Do-335 A, along with the rocket-powered DFS-were equipped with ejection seats, which saved the lives of more than 60 Luftwaffe aircrews.
While German work in pilot escape mechanisms was clearly ahead of American, British, and Russian efforts and postwar access to its equipment plainly aided their respective programs, all countries working on advanced military aircraft propulsion technologies were faced with similar problems and were led toward similar, almost inevitable conclusions.
For example, all parties concerned with successful aircrew ejection strove to have enough force applied to ensure the pilot was flung well clear of his aircraft, especially the vertical stabilizer, which in bombers might loom 20 feet high. Yet explosive cartridge tests using human subjects even at relatively low levels of acceleration produced severe spinal injuries. In England, for instance, Martin-Baker company tester Charles Andrews sustained a broken back after being propelled in a prototype seat to a height of only 10 feet at a maximum acceleration, or G-force, of four. The results were much the same elsewhere. Then it was realized that the problem lay primarily in the abruptness of the forces being applied to the subject. What was needed was smoother and more powerful acceleration. Thus an interim solution consisting of several lighter charges sequenced along the seat track was employed until the late 1950s, when a more satisfactory rocket-based approach, capable of safely applying up to fifteen Gs worth of acceleration, was developed in America. Meanwhile, a certain number of pilots continued to suffer injuries, while most subject to equivalent Gs escaped unscathed.
How to improve ejection seat landing remained a puzzle until the discovery that certain pilots were adding thick foam cushions to their seats for comfort’s sake. Upon ejection these pads would initially absorb some of the shock, resulting in the pilot’s accelerating more slowly than his seat and suffering the consequences an instant later with an injurious build-up of G-forces. Yet minute examination of what came to be termed “acceleration overshoot” revealed that the path to fewer injuries lay not only in the prohibition of excess padding, but also in better posture. Logically, this demanded that the pilot be tightly strapped into his seat. This, however, contradicted the flier’s basic requirement for freedom of motion–the need to move his arms and legs and turn in the cockpit to effectively fly his plane. Once again, a careful process of design, testing, and evaluation ultimately produced an array of ejection-activated straps and cords that would reel the aviator into the proper posture an instant after he punched out. Orthopedically correct posture was further served by moving the chute out and away from the flier’s buttocks and up towards the seat’s head box, which in turn was extended upward by a series of prongs designed to break through the canopy, should it fail to be automatically jettisoned.
From a pilot’s perspective, however, being thrown to safety from a doomed aircraft was only a partial solution to his problems; no ejection can amount to much without a soft landing. As usual in a process where many things must take place in a matter of a very few seconds, timing was everything. Key, of course, is the deployment of the chute. At high altitudes premature opening can only lead to disaster, while close to the ground a late opening can be fatal. Each case presented developers with a special set of problems.
It became apparent very early that leaving a plane high and fast raised certain fundamental difficulties for chute deployment. Most obvious was speed anything more than 250 mph stood a very good chance of ripping the nylon chute to shreds. Then there was the extreme cold and lack of oxygen encountered at very high altitudes. These facts could not be avoided, but they could be mitigated by keeping the pilot in his seat while he descended from high altitudes. For the seat could be designed to carry its own oxygen supply and offer some shielding from air blast. But more fundamental perhaps, it could provide both the means for initial deceleration and protection from its effects. This lay in the use of drogues–small, tough chutes designed to slow speed and stabilize the ejection seat during initial descent. Yet Martin-Baker, which did much pioneering work in this area, discovered that even a well-engineered five-foot drogue remained subject to chute burst at speeds in excess of 500 mph, unless preceded by a much smaller controller chute. The principle of tandem drogues having been established, its optimal utilization awaited the development of automatic deployment mechanisms based on speed, barometric sensors, and, ultimately, microprocessors. Ejection could take place under a number of circumstances, and the lives of aircrews demanded that an optimal sequence be applied for each one. Nowhere was this more true than in situations when a plane faltered at a very low altitude.
Because of the dangers associated with carrier launches and landings, the U.S. Navy had always been concerned with low-level escape. The Air Force, on the other hand, showed little interest in any ejection below 500 feet until the mid-1960s, when radar avoidance tactics drove their planes down near the deck and eject ion fatalities began to climb dramatically. Fortunately, the navy was hard at work on a system that would provide low-flying aircrews the altitude they needed for their chutes to deploy. Initially known as Rocket Assist Personal Ejection Catapult (RAPEC), the device would safely fling seat and subject up 200 feet. Still not satisfied, the navy fostered the development of a seat that actually allowed submerged ejections from planes that had crashed and were sinking. Discounting underwater ejections, by standers could observe the entire sequence of events involved in a low-level air escape and marvel at its precision and rapidity: in the space of perhaps two seconds the aircraft could fall out of control, the canopy fly off, pilot rise out of the plane and zoom up several hundred feet, drogues deploy, seat fall away, and main parachute bloom.
The penultimate event–the separation of seat and pilot (a function of both high and low-level ejection)–might strike these same observers, intuitively at least, as somewhat illogical. After all, the seat connotes protection, some thing hard and strong attached to the frail body of the escapee. This is certainly an understandable conclusion, reflecting an almost instinctive desire for protection. And in fact it remained a potentially viable means of aerial escape between the time designers of the rocket-propelled Heinkel 176 first proposed it in 1938 and the February 1961 deci sion to develop what was to become the F-111 fighter-bomber.
The F-111 was intended to be entirely state of the art: terrain-following radar enabled the plane automatically to fly at treetop level at very high speeds; variable-sweep wings optimized flight characteristics in all conditions; rather than individual ejection seats, the en tire cockpit area of the aircraft formed an escape capsule that would separate from the plane in an emergency. Ejection initiated an entirely automatic sequence in which drogues and then the main descent parachutes were precisely deployed. On the face of it the concept seemed a pilot’s dream. In an emer gency, the two-man crew could now exit their plane in the same environment in which they flew–not thrown into the gusting wind but safely encapsulated sitting side-by-side in their own cockpit. In fact the system did work and continues to be used in the controversial but long-lived F-111.
Yet like so many features of the plane, it did not prove to be the har binger of future developments. For the capsule ignored, or at least attempted to finesse, Newton’s laws of motion, which dictated that the greater the mass of a body in motion, the more its momentum, and the greater the force generated when it comes to a stop. In short, big things crash harder than little things. Escape capsules land harder than individual aviators under para chutes. Thus F-111 crew members tended to suffer impact-induced spinal injuries, which led eventually to an only partially successful program to develop a more energy-absorbing seat.
There were also problems with parachutes dragging capsules across the landscape and difficulties in exiting an aircraft, especially from an inverted position. The cost-benefit equation pointed plainly in the direction of a more modest approach.
Thus the escape systems developed for the next generation of American fighters–the A-10, F-14, F-15, and F-16-have reverted to the ejection seat concept. Yet the so-called Advanced Concept Ejection Seat II (ACE SII) is still a technological tour de force , featuring gyro-stabilization and gimbaled rockets linked to a computer, which ensure that a pilot will not be ejected into the ground even if he leaves an inverted plane. No doubt improvements will continue, enabling pilots to escape from ever-more hopeless situations; the days when aviation authorities hesitated to provide parachutes on the grounds that aviators might waste aircraft have long since passed. Contemporary air superiority fighters are monumentally expensive–well in excess of $50 million. Pilots cost far less to train. But the extraordinary skills required and the length of time demanded to hone those skills make pilots exceedingly hard to replace, especially in emergencies. So no modern air force can afford to waste its human capital. Thus far modern escape technologies, “golden parachutes,” have saved the lives of more than 10,000 aviators. If the past is any guide, further development of the parachute will save many more in the future.
Contributing editor ROBERT L. O’CONNELL’S novel Fast Eddy, a fictionalized biography of air ace Eddie Rickenbacker, published by WH Morrow.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue (Vol. 11, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Golden Parachute: Saving Combat Crews
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