Best seat in the house

The T-45A Goshawk is equipped with the Martin-Baker Navy Aircrew Common Ejection Seat (NACES), which is supposed to allow safe ejection from zero altitude and zero airspeed. I thought about that as I sat in a T-45A on the flight line at NAS Kingsville recently, and I must admit that it was just about all I could do to keep from grabbing hold of the yellow and black loop between my legs and yanking the fire out of it. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to eject from a jet. It’s bound to be quite a thrill, something to tell your grandkids about. If you live over it. Ejection seats have been around for a long time, almost as long as airplanes have been in the air. The first successful, American, in-flight ejection took place in 1946. First Sergeant Larry Lambert volunteered to be rocketed out of a Lockheed P-61 at 7800 feet over Patterson Field in Ohio. The plane was named Jack-in-the-Box. Really. Over 12,000 ejections have occurred worldwide so far, some intentional, some accidental. A German copilot, flying along in a Dornier DO-23 in the 1930s, was sitting on a spring loaded seat one minute and falling through the air the next. It was never determined what caused the seat to malfunction, but, suspiciously, the pilot couldn’t quit grinning for two days. An Israeli aviator in an A-4 Skyhawk once collided with a bird on take-off at 350 knots. He woke up lying flat on his back on the ground. The bird evidently came through his windshield, hit his helmet and knocked him out, and then glanced upward against the top ejection handle. Royal Navy pilot Bruce Mack-farlane is credited with ejecting from a jet from the lowest altitude on record. Bruce lost his engine taking off from the aircraft carrier HMS Albion and went into the drink. The plane quickly started sinking, and Bruce ejected, separated from the seat, and deployed his life vest before he reached the surface. Not being a pilot myself, I would imagine that ejecting would be the only part of the job I could do without a lot of training. So, as I sat in the cockpit of the Goshawk, I couldn’t help but think it would be neat to be the first civilian to punch out of a perfectly good Navy jet sitting on the gound. I had gone to Kingsville to visit my friend, Lt. David Bynum, Navy Chaplain, who is your common, average, everyday overachiever. David put me in a nomex flight suit and took me to the Navy base so that I could see what it was like to be an actual Navy Pilot, except for the parts where you take off, land, fly the plane, throw up, and especially eject. That would have probably gotten David into some very deep hot water. So I didn’t pull the handle. Of course, nothing would have happened anyway. I wasn’t allowed to crank up the Goshawk and take it for a spin (although I indicated that I might be interested in buying it), so the engine wasn’t even running. And even if it had been, there are pins in the base of the seat that disable it while it’s on the ground, so I wouldn’t have been able to eject anyway. Besides, David had already told me enough about ejecting for me to figure out that I didn’t want to do it . . . not really. Number one, the seat isn’t exactly plush. If it were, then the pilot’s back would be broken in the initial blast of an ejection. He has to have his head back and his legs stretched out in front of him. Straps from under the seat are attached to his ankles whenever a pilot is flying, and they contract and pull his legs in when the seat blasts off. If he pulled his legs up first, his thighs wouldn’t be against the seat, and both of his femurs would be broken immediately, but if he didn’t pull them in fast enough, they would be taken off by the dash, or whatever they call the part with all the gadgets. And there are a lot of gadgets. The Navy’s training jets have more bells and whistles in the cockpit than you can shake a piddle pack at, which seems sort of redundant, since a pilot can find out everything he needs to know from looking at his HUD (Heads Up Display). The HUD is right in the middle of the windshield, so that you can’t NOT see it. It is basically two transparent pieces of plexiglass on which all kinds of stuff is displayed. Important stuff, stuff like . . . well . . . pilot stuff. I’d explain the stuff the HUD says, but you wouldn’t understand it anyway, so we’ll just skip it. I can understand, though, why there are gadgets for everything, even with the HUD. If I’m flying along in a jet at 10,000 feet and 100,000 miles per hour and one of my gadgets quits, I want another gadget just like it, and I want it right now. So military jets are basically built by the department of redundancy department. There was, however, only one ejection handle that I could see, which makes you wonder. David, besides being a Chaplain, is also one of the guys who flies in the back seat of a T-45. He’s called a GIB (Guy In Back), which you should write down, since it is probably the most logical thing you’ll hear from the United States military. The GIB is responsible for operating a great many gadgets, and has to go to school to learn how to push buttons, turn knobs, and flip switches. The school is not easy. For instance, since there is always the chance that a Navy plane will crash in the water, Navy pilots and GIBs have to pass a very strenuous test in which they are drowned repeatedly. This is often fatal. Those who can still do their jobs afterward are allowed to go to flight school. Walking off the flight line with David, I couldn’t help but be proud of him, our military pilots and flying instructors, the United States government in general, and especially myself. I’m proud of David and the pilots learning to fly at Kingsville because they are the guys who will be keeping America safe in the years to come. But mostly I’m proud of myself, because I never did pull that handle. Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who shot down eight planes, including Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) during the Gulf War. Write to him at PO Box 564, Mason, Texas 76856 or hemphill@ctesc.net

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