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Apparently, the KC-135 has no ejection seats (they used to have parachutes to allow the crew to manually bail out, but those were removed in 2008 to save money), and, according to this Quora discussion, that's the case for all tankers (presumably excluding the ones converted from bombers), not just the KC-135.

This seems somewhat illogical to me, as tankers act as potent force multipliers; to quote the linked post:

It is quite possible that a sophisticated opponent will go after the tankers, as an easy way to disable a lot of aircraft without actually having to shoot them down. Doesn't really matter if they go down from a missile hit or lack of fuel. The math on that one looks very good - shoot down a tanker, and you have probably shot down four or five smaller, agile, hard to hit strike aircraft.

Not only that, but tankers are big, slow (for military aircraft), and generally devoid of any defensive armour or armament, making them easy targets relative to combat aircraft.

Even in peacetime, the role of a tanker aircraft inherently places it at a much greater risk of a midair collision than most aircraft are ever exposed to (example) - and, with most MACs, the only way to survive is to abandon aircraft.

So why don't tanker aircraft have ejection seats for their crew?

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    $\begingroup$ Tankers are big, slow, and devoid of defensive measures because they don't need any of that. They're used from a very safe distance, and if there is a risk of enemy air power, friendly air power runs interference. Great question though! $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 1 '18 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ crew of KA-6D tankers, EA-6B and F/A-18 aircraft etc. etc. relegated to tanker roles had ejection seats. So your statement is not universally true. $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 1 '19 at 5:30
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When I was flying the KC-135 tankers - A model and Q models - all crew members had parachutes, and all parachute packs had supplemental oxygen bottles that were good for at least 10 minutes - which was enough time to descend to the point where you did not need supplemental oxygen. If you had to bail out, it would be through the crew entry hatch, on the port side just behind the pilot's seat and in front of the boom operator's seat. If you had to pull the handle for bailout, the crew entry hatch would be jettisoned and a metal air dam would be pneumatically deployed about 4 feet down at the leading edge of the hatchway, to provide a wind block to allow crew members to fall free of the aircraft before getting into the slipstream. This prevented crew members from being blown back onto the body of the aircraft.

I have never heard of any tanker crew ever having to bail out of a KC-135, so perhaps this is why they got rid of the parachutes? Of course, I retired more than 20 years ago, and much has changed since then. But the KC-135s are still flying, even though they are older than anyone flying them today.

To answer the original question - both the KC-135 and the KC-46 are modifications of civilian aircraft, which do not have ejection seats; whereas fighters and bombers are designed for their specific mission.

Finally, I'm not aware of any cargo aircraft that have ejection seats, either.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE! $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 11 '19 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome and thanks for your service! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Dec 11 '19 at 15:05
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Primarily because tankers and transports are being operated in non-combat environments or safely benhind the front lines of a battlefield so ejection seats are not absolutely necessary for crew survival. The redundant capabilities of large multi-engines aircraft are such that there are minimal risks of ending up in situation where escapes systems are necessary.

People have commented that taker or transport aircraft cannot incorporate ejection seats because of the design features of large aircraft. This is false as large combat aircraft such as the B-2 and B-1 bombers are fitted with ejection seats at all crew stations with jettisonable or frangible hatches above the seats to facilitate ejection.

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So first - let's talk about what has ejection seats: Fighter Aircraft.

When are ejection seats used?

Fighter jets have a glass/polymer dome above them for visibility. The area directly above their head is all one piece, and can thus be "ejected", providing space for a clean exit. There's not a ton of room, which is why pilots are limited to a certain height range, else they risk getting parts cut off when they eject. Ejections in general are pretty dangerous, and if the pilot lives, they often have serious injuries, like broken ribs, brain trauma, and so forth.

Structural

Tankers do not have a glass/polymer dome above them - they just have more of the fuselage. In order to eject safely, there would be have to large hatches above the pilots, copilots, and all crew seats in order to eject safely. This would be a point of failure for the fuselage, and cause extra complications and considerations throughout the engineering process. Even if they were successful in making this, there's a solid chance you would eject and get cut in half by the tail of the aircraft, which can be moving up to 580mph.

Seating

This would also mean that all crew members have to be seated in their ejection seats - which typically they aren't. Think of a refueler as a mobile home - you have a kitchenette, additional seating, and bunks to sleep in. Refuelers spend the majority of their time flying in straight lines waiting to be called upon, so they definitely don't stay seated all the time. You can actually find home cooking videos on Youtube made by Airman that are bored and making pizza during aerial refueling missions!

You also have to remember that there's a boom operator, who is either seated or laying flat at the back of the aircraft - ejecting him up would involve going through the tail, and ejecting backwards gets you stuck in the jet exhaust.

But what if they had ejection seats anyway?

In the case that they did have ejections seats, and every airman runs back to his seat before ejecting, there are decent chances they would either get cut up by the tail, bounce across the fuselage, or get sucked into the engine. All of which are pretty deadly.

But what about parachutes?

I can speculate as to why they wouldn't want parachutes. Jumping from an aircraft in anything but stable flight is dangerous, and nearly impossible. Jumping from a stable aircraft is also dangerous, unless it is built specifically for that. You would jump out the and get hit by the wings, the tail, or worst case scenario, get sucked into the huge jet engines. The KC-135 (or other US refuelers) is not built to be jumped out of like the General Aviation aircraft used by Skydivers.

Costwise, parachutes cost more than they should in the military (like everything else, including their 10,000 USD coffee mugs that they keep breaking), but the cost isn't prohibitive. The larger factor is that they take up space, as you need a parachute for all potential crew, and the canopies can be fairly large even when packed. Space is at a premium in this aircraft, and to add parachute storage would require removing something else. Beyond that, high-altitude jumps from cruising altitude would require additional breathing equipment, which would take up a similar, if not larger, amount of space.

It's not needed

In the end, it's unlikely a refueler will be shot down. Refuelers are generally only flown in areas where we have control of the airspace, or reason to believe that we are well away from enemy fire. Passengers aren't included in commercial jets, and the same reasoning applies to refuelers.

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    $\begingroup$ You make some good points, but despite sharing a lot of these challenges, bombers often have ejection seats. $\endgroup$ – fooot Nov 1 '18 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ @fooot They add ejection seats because bombers go directly above enemy territory. Refuelers are made to sit behind the "aerial front line" and provide a midway stopping point from home base to the battlefield. $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 1 '18 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ Right, I think the main point is the difference in operational risk, where your answer seems to focus on the functional challenges, which have been solved before. $\endgroup$ – fooot Nov 1 '18 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean A refueler will never be out on it's own. Like I said, they expect aerial supremacy, and have fighters run interference for them. If a fighter is closing on a refueler, full of tens of thousands of pounds of jet fuel, they're already gone. $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 2 '18 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean Pretty much. For the United States, the assumption is that we will always be able to have air superiority in some area due to overwhelming firepower and technology (though area that may be further away from the battlefield, making the tanker less effective, though still more efficient than landing.) The tanker would never fly directly over the combat zone unless we had air superiority there, as it's quite simply a sitting duck - they have basic defenses though, as you can never guarantee air superiority.. ask about defenses in a new question and I'll happily answer! $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 5 '18 at 15:31
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Firstly, any bail out above 20,000 feet has a low chance of survival without supplemental oxygen and tankers usually fly above that height. Also, bailing out of a plane going 450 MPH is an extremely dangerous activity with a high risk of death.

The bigger issue is that providing complex, oxygen bearing systems for the full crew would be expensive. Tankers are not supposed to be flying in any area where they would be taking enemy fire, so an evacuation situation would essentially be a freak event. Most of the scenarios where a tanker would be attacked have a low survivability anyway.

The only really serious situation where a parachute would be useful would be a case of mechanical failure or fuel exhaustion where the aircraft can make a controlled descent. Even in this situation, evacuation is problematical for several reasons:

(1) putting on a parachute properly takes a long time, unless you are already wearing it, there are very few situations where the crew would have enough time to strap into a parachute

(2) if you wear parachutes, it impairs your functionality; you are essentially gimping your performance every day for a 1 in a million event

(3) jets flight at high speeds, even if the crew slows them down for evacuation, so any jump will be highly dangerous to begin with, especially since you will jumping out a side door and can hit the aircraft after you jump

Basically, the probability of a parachute being useful is so low that it is not worth the logistical problems of providing them.

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    $\begingroup$ Points 1 and 2 of your answer are not entirely accurate. Your typical parachutes for skydiving, yes, they take a minute to put on (Instructors seem to slip into them in about 10 seconds though, so training could help), but emergency parachutes take much less time to put on. They've actually been proven that you can put them on in the air, which for anyone else that has skydived, knows that is an incredible feat. They're similar to a hiking backpack, with straps across the chest. You can put that bag on like a schoolbag, and jump, in a few seconds. $\endgroup$ – M28 Nov 1 '18 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt I am talking about the average person, not expert skydivers. I have helped people put on emergency chutes many times and it is not a process that would go well in the middle of an accident in a plane that is out of control. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Nov 1 '18 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt can gree with you but that is if the plane is in level flight or manovering really gentle. Of course if it's spinning in a wildly way it will hinder impossible to the crew to run for an exit, defeating any scape procedure anyway. $\endgroup$ – jean Nov 1 '18 at 16:20
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It is mentioned in other answers, but I want to point it out explicitely: it's the tanker's role, and to a lesser degree its origin.

Big tankers, such as the KC-135, let's call them fleet tankers, are a flying gas station well away from the front line serving all aircraft in the theater of operations, e.g. in- and outbound fighters, the AWACS if present, and all other you find useful in your operations. Any large plane well away from danger simply doesn't need ejection seats, since you can always withdraw them if enemy fighters come their way. The exception to this rule (fleet tankers don't have ejection seats) are converted bombers, such as the Victor. Since, their design is a frontline one, i.e. the primary role was that of a bomber aircraft, they were designed to accomodate the dangers of frontline operations. In their role as fleet tankers they simply retained their ejection seats, because first why not, and secondly why expend money for removing something that does not interfere with normal operations.

Small tankers, i.e. buddy refueling, is used near or behind the frontlines to support individual attack aircraft. Their role is to support frontline operations, which carries inherent dangers. That's why we see buddy refueling capabilities with attach aircraft, such as the F-18. I venture, you will never see a small tanker without ejection seats fulfilling the role of a buddy refueling figher aircraft.

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sorry chaps but a lot of rubbish. In RAF every crew member or passenger has a seat those that have to move around aircraft generally have a chest parachute which clips on to the harness which is always worn.Victor tankers have a max complement of 6. 2 (pilots) have ejection seats but other four have to open the door and jump. Same goes for the Vulcan bomber. They would most certainly not get hit by the tail, bounced on the fuselage or sucked into the engines, although the Vulcan intakes are very close to the door.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation.SE! You answer could be improved by providing sources that could provide people with more information. $\endgroup$ – fooot Apr 30 '19 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ Also, how up to date is this? The RAF hasn't flown Vulcans since 1984 or Victors since 1993. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Apr 30 '19 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ I seriously doubt everyone who's a passenger on one of the RAF Tristar tanker/transporters wore/wears parachutes. $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 1 '19 at 5:29
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Ejection systems have saved many lives in non-combat related incidents. When it comes to ejection, These systems should not be restricted to combat craft. Ejection systems can be devised to work in almost any craft provided that the extra bulk is not an overwhelming part of the useful load.

By not including ejectors in more aircraft, designers are denying air crews the best lifesaving equipment there is. While it’s true that most aircraft go their whole life without crashing, some of them do crash eventually, some suffer from poor designs, malfunctions or pilot error, and yet we expect crews to go down with the ship. The reasons can include, cost, weight capacity and other performance considerations, but these are poor reasons to exclude life-saving technology.

This sends a message that your life is worth less than the cost of the system/design and the cargo capacity that you displace. Ejection is by far the best option. It's self-contained, requiring only that you strap in to the same seat you always use and put on helmet. It requires far less reaction time. It can save your life far past the point that maneuvers become useless. Depending on velocity and attitude, you only need a few seconds and a few hundred feet, to deploy the system properly. Even near the ground, ejection can be a survivable alternative to what would otherwise be a deadly crash landing or aborted take off. Good ejection systems are very expensive and sophisticated - operating as gyro-guided autonomous small rocket crafts in their own right.

The best way to think about ejection is to think about a pilot and crew over the span of their entire career. They may only need to use an ejector one time, if at all, but the number of lives it could save warrants it’s inclusion. It obviously makes less sense for passenger aircraft, due to the impossibility of including so many and the moral/ethical restraints against abandoning passengers. Nevertheless, It makes perfect sense for cargo-liners. Ejection systems for entire passenger craft/modules is fraught with difficulty and is not so close to being readily available tech, or nearly as viable as cockpit seats. But even these difficulties might be overcome if not for cost, efficiency, and 'return on investment' considerations. Ultimately, I f we really wanted to make such a craft because we considered lives to be invaluable, we certainly could. That said, it would be much more costly, burn more fuel, be heavier, carry fewer people, and cost more per ticket.

Such ideas can seem extreme, wasteful, or even crazy until you put things into the perspective of a situation where it would be the only thing that can save your life. The truth is, very, very few of us experience those kinds of situations and live to talk about it. Maybe we should give those voices more weight in such discussions - pilots whose lives may have been saved because this expensive, heavy, "crazy" equipment was there. In the end, usually, the main reason we exclude such systems is simply because we don't consider them to be 'worth it', not because we can't do it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I disagree, there are other good reasons. For the tanker, the boomer don't have ejection seat (I don't think we can even speak of a "seat"). On another "aircraft", the space shuttle didn't have ejection seats for the lower decks (the one for the upper deck were removed) $\endgroup$ – Manu H Aug 1 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ You should reread this answer that give good arguments contradicting your answer and develop those points. Moreover, I don't think firing a rocket (the ejection seat mechanism) next to a failing tanker is the best lifesaving equipment. $\endgroup$ – Manu H Aug 1 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ DV as unreadable wall of text. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Aug 1 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the group! In the future, keep a few things in mind when answering posts: 1) Try to stick to the facts with supporting evidence, and less on speculative opinion. 2) For long posts, make sure to break it up into paragraphs to make it easier to read. I saw that you tried to do that, but it requires a double space on here for some reason. 3) Make sure to keep the answer focused on the question that you are answering, with fewer tangents and moralistic observation. Thank you for your post. I look forward to hearing more from you in the near future. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Holmes Aug 1 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ I’m not sure this is an answer. As it is now, it is at risk for deletion since it is long and contains numerous speculative opinions. $\endgroup$ – dalearn Aug 1 at 21:48

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