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August, 2003 Archive Story

Handle-Handling - Seat-Pan versus Face-Blind

In the early years when ejection seats were not as sophisticated as they are today, it was dis­covered that many aircrew were losing their lives needlessly because they were using their ejection seats too late and only when the aircraft was utterly out of control. However, as time went on and pilots became more confident in the operation of their seats, studies of recent ejections showed that, in the majority of cases, aircrew got out when they ought to. In other words premeditated actions were being taken as a result of careful forethought - ON THE GROUND!

However, the careful forethought on the ground in many cases did not include consideration of which handle to use in differing circumstances. Research uncovered some startling facts about anti­pathies towards the seat-pan handle. In the days when your ejection seat gave you the option, too many pilots, both experienced and recent FTS gradu­ates, did not even consider the seat-pan handle (SPH) when discussing what to do if ejection was forced upon them. Their thinking, and consequent teaching, were still coloured by Mr. Baker's philosophy that face-blind protection was necessary for all ejec­tions; a design feature borne out by the poor results of his competitors' seats in the early days of ejection seats.

In spite of a terrific record, Martin Baker seats installed in small fighter cockpits did have their problems. Many pilots sat high in relation to the face-blind handle (FBH) because of long backs or the need to see out. Bone domes barely cleared canopies, and in some installations, the Lightning being one, the FBH actually touched the canopy. Consequently, if difficulty was experi­enced in finding the FBH, bad posture could result in tragic injuries - for example, in the June 1963 ejection by a member of the No 56 Squadron Firebird aerobatic team, when Flt Lt Mike Cooke ejected from XM179 following a mid-air collision with XM174 when practising aerobatics. Mike Cooke unfortunately suffered severe spinal injuries which would lead to him becoming confined to a wheel-chair.

There was also some evidence of reluctance among potential ejectees in other Commands to voice any misgivings they had about their seats. For instance, some Canberra operators still flew about with the seat pin in position. This was because the conglomeration of nega­tive g restraint and leg restraint straps around the seat-pan handle made pilots feel that accidental operation of the seat was a distinct possibility, especially when they had to grope around for switches near the base of the control column, or scratch them­selves on long trips. One Canberra navigator never took his pin out because he was afraid that the other nav might catch his face-blind handle when he was wandering about the aircraft. (He'd been doing it for a long time before he was caught too!)

As a result, Fighter Command conducted a propaganda campaign and their article "Com­parative Shopping", first printed in the June 1967 issue of the Fighter Command Flight Safety Review, is worth reproducing and con­tains most of the answers.

"Comparative Shopping"

"Hello, Julian."
"Hello, Sandy, what are you doing here?"
"Oh, just looking around to see what bargains they've got in ejection seat handles."
"What's the point of buying one of those, they're hardly ever used?"
"I know, duckie, but the point that they can be required makes them a necessity. Come on, every respect­able pilot should have one."
"All right, it'll do no harm to enquire I suppose!"
"Right, let's go in and look around."

"Isn't that top handle with the face screen absolutely dishy! It's the only one to give head restraint and face protection and also help retain the oxygen mask."
"Yes, I know, but it can take up to a second longer than that lovely seat-­pan handle to operate, and quite often that second isn't available. No, I prefer the seat-pan handle."
"Oh, I'll grant you the fact that it's quicker to use, but what about your posture, eh ?"
"What about it, Jules? Facts prove that it's not the choice of handles that can cause trouble but whether or not a conscious effort was made to straighten the back before ejection. Neither handle pre­judices the right sitting position you know, so there! Anyway what about your top handle when you've put your seat too high and can't reach it properly? Seat position doesn't affect the seat-pan handle's accessibility, you know."
"Oh, you're so smug! It's quite simply a question of adjusting the seat to the optimum position before flight and leaving it there for the rest of the sortie. And don't tell me you can't see properly, because all you have to do is move your head, unless it's set in concrete."
"Rude! No, I was merely going to refer to those of us who, by the nature of our builds, can be consid­ered, to be nature's aristocrats. For us it can be impossible, sometimes, to reach the top handle."
"Well, I suppose that's true, but do you think that all of you aristo­crats of nature, short hairy arms and praying mantis bodies included, know that you haven't really got a choice? I doubt it; I expect you're all so wrapped up in your Narcissus com­plexes not to have given it a thought."
"Nonsense, we are all well aware that the seat-pan handle is the one for us. Give us some credit for common sense. Really!"
"All right, I suppose I'll have to, but we can't stand here yakking all day: which are we going to buy?"
"Well, to be honest, I can't make up my mind. They both have their good points and offer so much that it's difficult to choose."
"You're so right. After all, there are occasions when each can gain in importance. I mean, if you've got to go when the aircraft is moving fast, don't jeopardise your lovely complexion or even your head; if you can reach it, use the face blind."
"Oh, I do agree. But don't forget that on other occasions, when time is at a premium and there can be no messing about weighing up pros and cons, it's the seat-pan handle first time and every time, even if your head may end up rattling around a bit."
"You're right, of course, but how do you define time being at a premium?"
"Well, that's up to you. When close to the ground is an obvious occasion, but how close is close? The decision is yours, but the chances are that if you haven't made it in the comfort of the crew room, there won't be time in the air!"
"I suppose you're short of time from cigarette 'out' to coffee 'in'?"
"Cheeky! No, but at least I've decided already in what situation I would always go for the seat-pan handle, so there."
"Mmm. That doesn't really get us any closer to choosing which one to buy; how about getting them both?"
"Now that is a good idea. I'll tell you what, I'll pay for these and you can buy lunch. How about that?"

As a propaganda campaign, this was fairly adventurous for the Service in 1967, but experience was to bear out the advice it contained. For instance, a Hunter pilot who ejected made several at­tempts to reach the top ejection seat handle but to no avail, owing to the violent motion of the aircraft. He therefore pulled the seat-pan firing handle which he was able to do without any difficulty using his right hand only. Fortunately, speed was not essential in his case. A moment later he felt a sharp pain in the small of his back as he ejected. At the time of ejection, his lap-strap was tight, but his shoulder straps were slightly loose to enable him to maintain a good look-out, and he was conscious of being in a bad ejection posture. The pilot suffered injuries to his spine.

In the June 1963 accident mentioned already, the Board of Inquiry considered it unlikely that the severe spinal injuries suffered by the pilot were caused by bad posture. In that case, the pilot had ejected at over 400 kts and might well have suffered equally severe injuries had he used the seat-pan handle. In a subsequent Lightning ejection at 300 kts, the pilot suffered head injuries through head-flailing after using the seat-pan handle.

However, with the majority of ejections below 5000 feet and 350 knots, where face-blind protection was not necessarily required, the SPH was eventually given greater emphasis, ­resulting in the SPH becoming "primary" and the FBH "secondary" in pilots' minds. Nevertheless, the decision on which handle to use remained with the pilot. It all depended on the circumstances, and the question was always - WOULD YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO?

To make sure that pilots were left in no doubt, Fighter Command spelt it out: here is the "official" policy on the subject:-

  1. The face-blind provides protection to the head and neck and a measure of head-restraint during the early phase of ejection. It also relieves the spine of some load. This protection and restraint is particularly important where ejec­tion through the canopy is the standard procedure, since canopy breakers on the drogue box have not always been successful in clearing an adequate path for the seat occupant.
  2. As a result of increasing experi­ence, more emphasis has been placed in recent years on initiation of ejection by seat-pan handle. Although introduced to overcome high g conditions, this is now recognised as the quicker method of initiation. Statistics on its use are limited, but those available do not show any increased incidence of back injuries.
  3. FACE-BLIND initiation has advantages:-
    a) When speed is high, ie. above 300 kts IAS.
    b) When retention of helmet/mask is essential, ie. at high altitude
    c) In aircraft for which canopy penetration has not been con­clusively proven as safe with seat pan handle indication.
  4. SEAT-PAN HANDLE initiation has advantages:-
    a) When full parachute deployment may only be achieved by the most rapid possible initiation, eg. at low altitude when control is lost or sink/descent rate is high.
    b) If high g or injury prevents use of the face blind.
    c) If the head is high relative to the head box or canopy, and face-blind location, extraction and extension may be difficult or impossible.
  5. In any ejection situation, a com­bination of these circumstances may exist, and no standard operat­ing procedure can be defined.
  6. However, the ultimate considera­tion in ejection is to save life, regardless of secondary injuries. If, therefore, doubt exists in the mind of the pilot or other aircrew member, he should invariably use the quicker method.


In spite of this, there was still considerable debate amongst those who sat in the hot seats, with the older pilots tending to favour the face-blind handle and the younger ones the seat-pan handle. One senior officer was of the opinion that the whole debate could be summed up in the sentence 'Top if you can, bottom if you can't'. This was hardly constructive, especially when research by the Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM) at Farnborough suggested that many pilots who had died in recent years might have lived had they gone for the seat-pan handle first instead of groping vainly for the FBH first.

J C Cooper, a flight test engineer with Hawker Siddeley Aviation, asked some questions when he tested different helmets with the FBH. Sitting in the Mk 4DSA seat of a Sea Vixen wearing the Mk 1 helmet, the face blind extended right down to below the pilot's chin. However, wearing the Mk 2A helmet, the face-blind did not extend below the top of his P-mask. The obvious suggestion seemed to be to extend the firing cables by about six inches to allow full protection of the face. In consequence, the IAM was asked for its opinion and the reply made interesting reading.

The IAM advised that extension of the firing cables on the FBH would be extremely inadvisable. In fact, until a few years previously, the cables had been longer than they were now, although nothing like six inches longer. Nevertheless, some ejectees had great difficulty in extracting the sear, in spite of full extraction of the face-blind. Indeed, a newly trained co-pilot of a V-bomber was killed because he adopted the classic face-blind initiation posture with arms tucked well into his sides and therefore unable to move further down. This prevented the sear from being withdrawn, so he erroneously thought that the seat had failed when it had not. He then attempted a manual separation, but was too late - another inch of pull (or a shorter cable) would have saved his life.

Eventually, with aircraft getting faster and cockpit workloads getting heavier, the cool debate in the crew-room about decision-taking parameters began to focus on one point. It is actually fairly simple to decide which handle to go for, even in the heat of the moment inside a cockpit. One of these is best if speed is of the essence, as it so often is, but the time advantage of the seat-pan handle has already been taken up by the time taken to decide which is best. And so BOTH handles are slower. Slower than what? Slower than always going for the 'fast' handle, whatever the circumstances!

However, the final word on self-protection may rest with the subconscious. Human nature being what it is, man will always instinctively tend to protect that which is most valuable to him. So, no matter what the circumstances in the cockpit or how much you brainwash people, the intelligentsia will always tend to go for the face-blind handle and the rest of us will settle for the seat-pan handle!

Charles M Ross

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