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I'm trying to figure out if the cockpit seats for WW2 bombers had any kind of shock-absorption, or were they fixed rigidly to the airframe?

This picture is from a B-24. There are clearly enough pivot points and sliders there to allow for movement, but is that movement just to allow different pilots to adjust the seat, or is that shock-absorption? https://i.imgur.com/dvHFosj.jpg

Similarly with this picture from a B-17, there is enough mechanical stuff connected to the back of the seat, but I haven't been able to get a good enough picture to actually determine what it's for. enter image description here

If these planes did have shock-absorbing seats, does the whole seat bounce around as a unit? Or does the backrest move independently from the base of the seat, like on some reclining chairs?

Though not a bomber, here is a seat from a Spitfire. It just looks so much like it has mechanical shock absorbers. The seat is attached at the top and the bottom by rods that are hinged at each end, and then there are diagonally connected pistons. What else would those possibly be for? enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Most had cushions, which is a type of shock-absorber. $\endgroup$
    – Party Ark
    Jul 26, 2023 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ No @PartyArk, in warplanes of that era you sat on your parachute, that's why the bottom of the seat looks like a pan. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Jul 26, 2023 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ I'm fairly confident that even passenger seats (at least in cargo, err coach class and business) don't have shock-absorption either, even today. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 26, 2023 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I guess it makes sense, but like look at this blueprint for a Spitfire seat? What are those pistons attaching the seat to the back of the cockpit if not shock-absorption? hosting.photobucket.com/albums/ff321/taylortony/Aviation/… $\endgroup$
    – Rekov
    Jul 26, 2023 at 19:10

2 Answers 2

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As @GdD says, if you mean mechanical shock absorbers then no.

In WW2, aircrew used cushions to absorb and damp shock impulses. The pan of the B-24 seat in your top picture accommodates a cushion alone, and is typical of warplane seats of the era. Your second picture is a Spitfire seat: the deeper pan would accommodate a parachute underneath a cushion, a less common arrangement.

(The piston behind the Spitfire seat is to aid with the adjustment of the seat height, not shock-absorption. Spitfire pilots would raise their seat while taxi-ing to aid visibility.)

There is some confusion about pilots and aircrew using their parachutes as a makeshift cushion which I will attempt to clear up. A packed parachute is very dense, and makes for an appalling shock-absorber.

First, to fighters. In order to expedite egress from the cramped confines of a small fighter cockpit it was necessary for the pilot's chute to sit underneath him or her in the seat pan. In this arrangement, a seat cushion was placed between the parachute and the pilot's bottom as part of the assembly. The giveaway for these cushions is that they tend to have a cut-out for the rigging to pass through. The RAF, Luftwaffe and USAAF all used this configuration for small cockpit scenarios.

Cadet L. Deitz at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi stands on his plane in August 1942. Cadet L. Deitz at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi stands on his plane in August 1942. source

F/O Gordon Hill with his MkXVI Spitfire in 1945 F/O Gordon Hill with his MkXVI Spitfire in 1945 5]5

As the war progressed, back chutes became more popular. For instance, 80.3% of bailouts from a P-47 were done with seat chutes, but 96% of P-51 bailouts were done with back chutes. The extra space underneath you meant more room for emergency equipment and the possibility of a more substantial cushion that could be used as a buoyancy aid.

But your question was about bombers, and here the picture is a little more complex, although the answer is still the same.

In neither the RAF nor the USAAF did bomber aircrew typically wear a parachute. Every station had a stowage area for a clip-on chest parachute - for the pilot(s) of the B-17 and Avro Lancaster, it's behind their seat. If you have to move around - and most aircrew did - wearing a solid and heavy parachute would be impractical. And if you don't (tail gunner, ball-turret gunner), there's not enough room to wear one even if you wanted to.

Original U.S. WWII Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Cockpit Seat Cushions Original U.S. WWII Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Cockpit Seat Cushions source

All crew members would wear a harness (the Observer Harness in the RAF) and attach a clip-on chest parachute in the case of emergencies, stowed near their station. It's almost inconceivable how stressful finding your parachute in a real emergency must have been. The pan you see in your seat is for a cushion - most USAAF bombers (including the B-24 in your picture) would have bright yellow cushions marked "Do not remove from airplane" in the shallow pan of the seat at their various stations - you can actually see them in the picture of the B-17 you have provided.

USAAF A-3 Harness USAAF A-3 Harness and clip-on waist pack source

For the B-24 and B-17 we have stats which tell us only a small minority of bailouts were done with seat chutes, the rest with mostly chest and sometimes back chutes.

B-17 stations B-17 crew stations showing standard issue cushions source

The Lancaster pilot was an exception: while he was provided with space behind him to stow his chute, as the war progressed increasingly the seat chute harness was more popular. Hence his cushion was in-between the chute and his bottom, like a fighter pilot: with only one pilot, he wasn't expecting to leave his seat for any other reason than bailing out.

B-29 Cockpit

WW2 B-29 cockpit show comfortably-cushioned seat. source

So in answer to your question, B-24 aircrew, as with most WW2 aircrew, primarily used cushions to absorb some of the energy of the aircraft. They did not use their parachutes as cushions.

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No warplane seat I've ever seen has any kind of shock absorbers, if you mean springs or hydraulics. You don't want your seat bouncing around when you're trying to control the airplane. The frames are rigid, allowing for adjustments.

If you are asking about cushioning, the seat backs usually had something for comfort, warplane pilots almost always sat on their parachute, using that as a cushion.

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