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Looking at this question I remembered a question I always wanted to ask:

In the movie "Top Gun" one of the main characters dies when trying to eject from the F-14. Here is the scene where this happens. Did an incident like this ever occur in real life, or is there at least a theoretical possibility that a pilot could be killed this way?

Top Gun was filmed in the mid 80s, which is quite a while ago. If there were incidents, did they do something to fix that issue? And this question goes not only for F-14s but also other aircraft with ejection seats.

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Some sources I found claiming the event was real:

A flat spin creates a low-pressure area and stalls the canopy when ejected. Producers wanted a midair crash but based this accident on a real-life incident instead.

(source)

The way Goose died was actually based on a real life incident that happened to a 14 crew in the Navy. Don't remember the specifics, just found this out recently while reading an article in one of last months flying mags (not Flying)

(source)

I have a photo of the 'real' Goose and it's true that he died of seat ejections but not exactly like the movie.

(source, with pictures)

There's also an interview of Steven C. Schallhorn, who apparently was one of top gun instructors interviewed for the movie:

Dr. Schallhorn said during his interview for the movie, he explained how a flat spin could actually happen with an F-14 and that it complicates ejection. "The aerodynamics of the F-14 flat spin affect the timing of the ejection sequence," Dr. Schallhorn said. "The canopy is jettisoned, followed by the ejection of the back seat, followed by the front seat. In a flat spin, the canopy, when it ejects, bobbles for an extra few hundredths of a second above the aircraft. That upsets the carefully engineered sequence because the guy in the back could then hit the canopy. That sequence made it into the movie."

(source)

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    $\begingroup$ excellent detective work! +1 $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Feb 21 '15 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ I second this. I know some 14 drivers that echoed the same opinion. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Feb 22 '15 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ This is excellent! When I saw that scene, I thought it was impossible, as the front of the canopy normally blows first and then the rear, so that it is completely thrown clear before the seat ejects. $\endgroup$ – BillDOe Feb 19 '16 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ Welp, shoulda put a couple Sepratrons on that canopy... $\endgroup$ – Sean Sep 21 at 23:51
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This question has been asked before on the Net, and there are some who say it happened once in advanced training operations. Unfortunately, I found no detailed reference.

For the likelihood of the events which lead to the ejection sequence, see this question.

The ejection sequence is at least factually wrong when showing both seats being ejected almost simultaneously. In the F-14, first the backseater (RIO - radar intercept officer) would eject, and the ejection of the pilot would happen 0.4 s later.

The ejection system of the F-14 was certified for 0-0 ejection (on the ground and at rest), and the canopy would be thrown backwards by an explosive charge. In a flat spin, a case not anticipated during development, it is possible that the canopy stays trapped in the turbulent, separated flow above the airplane, and then the first seat to come out has a chance of hitting it. At least this detail is not impossible.

Ejection is a violent process, and limbs have been dislocated and/or broken, and pilots have been knocked unconscious during ejection. Hitting the canopy in a still accelerating seat could indeed knock the seat's occupant unconscious.

This was fixed at least so far that a technique was developed to end the flat spin of an F-14. For other aircraft the system is tested and certified with the aircraft at rest, so hitting the canopy in a mid-flight ejection is impossible when the jettison mechanism works as intended. There have been cases, though, where the canopy failed to separate, and then an interlock would prevent the seat from firing. More modern designs use canopy breakers for clearing the way through a closed canopy, but they work only around the head. I don't want to know how the pilot's knees get mangled form the acrylic (or - even worse - the polycarbonate) when it is their time to clear the canopy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well yeah, unconscious, but can it actually kill somebody (I guess in the movie the cause of death was a fractured neck or something similar). $\endgroup$ – Maverick283 Feb 20 '15 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Maverick283: Yes, I personally know of one case of a fractured neck, but this pilot ejected outside of the seat's envelope, in a strong sideslip. My interpretation of the movie was that Goose drowned when he was in the water. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Feb 20 '15 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ In the movie it can be seen RIO ejecting first and then the pilot, so isn't it factually correct, actually? $\endgroup$ – eis Feb 21 '15 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ @eis: Yes, but even though it is in slow motion, they both leave the plane almost at the same time. A real ejection sequence would have looked much different. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Feb 21 '15 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Simon There is only about half a second between firings in the slow motion scene and the seats are not actually powering away from the aircraft. This should look very different in real life. $\endgroup$ – Andreas Bombe Mar 6 '15 at 4:34
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I was a pilot in the Tomcat for 1,800 hours 1975-85. We actually had a written and memorized procedure that when ejecting from a FLAT SPIN you did not just pull the ejection seat handle(s).

The canopy was to be MANUALLY "jettisoned" FIRST via the Canopy Jettison handle. AFTER doing so, you THEN reached for the seat ejection handles and pull to eject.

Those couple of seconds to get to the ejection handles after the canopy jettison gave the canopy time to clear the area overhead the cockpit since the aerodynamics of the flat spin (going straight down while spinning like a frisbee) could cause the canopy to "hover" over the cockpit area briefly.

Otherwise, simply pulling ejection handles only means the backseat immediately followed the canopy in firing only a half second after the canopy left in a normal ejection sequence -- risking the back seat hitting it (like Goose). The manually jettison first procedure was SPECIFICALLY created in our manual ("RIO... jettison canopy, then command eject") to avoid the fairly good possibility of the back seat hitting the canopy actually happening (along with possible pilot incapacitation).

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I suspect that no-one here has the expertise necessary to answer this with absolute certainty. This answer is supposition.

The incident started with a double flame out, precipitated by flying through the exhaust of the other aircraft, following which it entered a flat spin. In this condition, it would be possible although unlikely that the canopy could remain above the aircraft and the crew member be ejected up into it.

There have been real world incidents of ejecting crew members hitting canopies. I'll come back and edit with links or citations if I can find any.

In the words of Mythbusters, I would say that this myth is "plausible".

Yee hah, Jester's dead.

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This is more in the way of a comment regarding the F-4 incident. In 1969 an F-4J launched off the #1 cat off USS Ranger. The plane failed to gain suffiecient airspeed and went in the water. The RIO safely ejected. The pilot was lost. All that was recovered was his shattered helmet. The only possibility is that his canopy did not clear the plane before his ejection. I can provide the log of the incident if so desired. I was serving on the Ranger at the time. I am now the webmaster for Ranger's History & Memorial site. I have the logs for that cruise.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi Ranger_Vet, welcome on aviation.stackexchange. It could improve your answer if you were able to provide links with information to this event. $\endgroup$ – user23573 Oct 26 '15 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ @BogdanWilli - ejection-history.org.uk/Aircraft_by_Type/F-4_PHANTOM_USA/… $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Oct 26 '15 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ Looks like the only accident fitting the description was on 02/20/1969, F-4J no,155763 (VF‑21) Stated cause is "catapult bridle separated from the aircraft prematurely". LTJG David Phillip Neisler [Neislar] was killed. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Oct 26 '15 at 7:10
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Ejection in general is not a safe thing to do. It's a measure of last resort. For example, the ACES II seat used by most US military aircraft is listed as having a 94% success rate in envelope, and 89% out of envelope (the conditions the seat is designed to handle), the definition of success being that the person lived, often with injuries suffered during the ejection.

And it's one of the safest ejection seats ever made. Earlier efforts back in the 1980's, the time that Top Gun was made, had maybe a 75% success rate. Striking a canopy that was slow to open or other parts of the aircraft on the way out was known to happen. On the US Navy A6, the canopy didn't even open in an ejection - the pilot and seat were blasted through it. During the first Gulf War, the Iraqis put on television an A6 pilot whose face was battered and swollen. That wasn't the Iraqis beating him up, his injuries were suffered during the ejection.

Speed of the aircraft at the time of ejection is a factor... slower is better. If the aircraft is exceeding Mach 1 at the time of ejection, the survival rate goes way down.

So, yes, it's possible to get killed in an ejection. Not something you do unless the alternative is definitely getting killed in a crash.

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Not a perfect correlation with the Top Gun scenario, but somewhat relevant.

A mid-air collision between an F-4B Phantom and a DC-9 in 1971 highlighted an already known issue with the F-4's ejection system. As ejecting into a closed canopy is less than desirable, an electrical interrupt was designed into the circuit to prevent actuation if the canopy was closed. On the F-4 with its split canopy design, the pilot's canopy would often not unlock if the RIO ejected first, thereby trapping the pilot inside the aircraft. Modifications to the fleet were already underway but the aircraft in question had not received them.

So although this system was designed to avoid ejecting into the canopy, it led to the pilot's death anyway.

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Interesting discussion. But one thing that isn't addressed is the time elapsed between the canopy jettison and the first seat to leave the plane. This is relevant because of the flat spin. An f-14 is 63' long. If you put the center axis of the spin roughly in the middle that means the pilots are probably half of that distance to the nose of the aircraft, so say 15 feet from the axis. If the nose of the aircraft makes a full 360 degree rotation every second, that would mean the pilots are traveling around their circumference of the circle at nearly 100' per second. (The nose cone would be traveling at about 200'/s) That means that if the canopy fires, and a .5 second time elapses before the first seat goes, the pilots should be half a rotation away (or ~50') from the canopy. But of course there is the problem of the momentum of the canopy and air resistance. The momentum of the plane would have been accelerating the canopy at the same rate while the two were attached. However, once the canopy was jettisoned (and we assume the canopy is jettisoned in a perpendicular vector to the aircraft in that moment), the canopy should immediately begin to slow its rate of rotation as compared to the rest of the system. Turbulent air above the fuselage considered, the canopy should have been slowing it's rate of rotation, even if only slightly. This would create "z-axis" distance between the pilots and the canopy. Finally, there is the variable of longditudinal acceleration. The same reason why maverick couldn't reach the ejection handles above his head. The rotation would have been creating an "outward" force on the canopy while it was spinning with the aircraft. So when the canopy was jettisoned, that momentum would have carried through and pushed the canopy off the nose of the aircraft. I know people have mentioned that there was a "backward" jettison path designed into the f-14 which theoretically could have exactly cancelled out the forward momentum of the canopy but this would be a very big coincidence. Anyway, my theoretical conclusion would be - assuming there was some kind of time elapse between canopy and first seat - is that by the time the first seat fired, the canopy should be "lagging" behind the rotation of the cockpit, as well as having been moving forward off the nose of the aircraft, leaving the pilots to clear the aircraft safely. But that wouldn't make as good movie. :D

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  • $\begingroup$ welcome to aviation.se. well, that's quite a wall of text. concerning my theoretical conclusion, could you make it less theoretical and more practical (i.e. carry out the computation and have references)? $\endgroup$ – Federico Sep 3 '16 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Federico - it's theoretical because I don't think the data is available to make a proper calculation. However, using the physics and "directional" data as I have above, you can reasonably surmise that the canopy wouldn't interfere in the pilot ejection. Would be a cool experiment though. $\endgroup$ – Karl Sep 12 '16 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ Either way, it's still a wall of text... $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Jun 26 '18 at 13:45

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