Once upon a time, bailing out of a plane involved popping open the roof or door, and hopping out with your parachute, hoping that you’d maintained enough altitude to slow down before you hit the ground. As flying speeds increased and aircraft designs changed, such escape became largely impossible.
Ejector seats were the solution to this problem, with the first models entering service in the late 1940s. Around this time, the United Kingdom began development of a new fleet of bombers, intended to deliver its nuclear deterrent threat over the coming decades. The Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor, and the Avro Vulcan were all selected to make up the force, entering service in 1955 through 1957 respectively. Each bomber featured ejector seats for the pilot and co-pilot, who sat at the front of the aircraft. The remaining three crew members who sat further back in the fuselage were provided with an escape hatch in the rear section of the aircraft with which to bail out in the event of an emergency.
A Fateful Decision
The decision was not a controversial one at the time of design of the V-bombers, with original plans for a jettisionable crew capsule abandoned prior to building the prototype aircraft. However, the issue was brought into sharp focus almost immediately after the Vulcan entered service. Avro Vulcan B.1 XA897 was returning from a tour of Australia and New Zealand, intending to land at Heathrow on 1 October 1956. On the day, torrential rain meant visibility was poor, and pilot Donald Howard decided to attempt a ground controlled approach to the runway.
After being advised the plane was coming in too high above the required glide path, Howard overcorrected, with the Vulcan striking the ground, tearing off the landing gear. With the plane still airborne, Howard found the controls non-responsive, gave the order to abandon the plane, and ejected successfully. Co-pilot Air Marshall Harry Broadhurst also tried the controls, and followed seconds later. With the low altitude of the accident and the forces involved, the rest of the crew went down with the plane and died on impact.
The official inquiry into the incident apportioned blame in parts to both the pilot for not aborting the landing earlier, and the ground controller for failing to update the aircrew that they had descended too low. Notably, when delivering the report to the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Air, Nigel Birch delivered a statement regarding the choice of the pilot and co-pilot to eject from the aircraft.
It would be unjust to the pilot and co-pilot were I not to make it clear, in conclusion that it was their duty to eject when they did. I am satisfied that there could have been no hope of controlling the aircraft after the initial impact. In these circumstances, it was the duty of the captain to give the order to abandon the aircraft and of all those who were on board to obey it if they were able to do so. Both the pilot and co-pilot realised when they gave their orders that, owing to the low altitude, the other occupants had no chance of escape, and they considered that their own chances were negligible.
The issue quickly became a cause célèbre for the Daily Express, which began to publicly question why three out of five crew members weren’t provided with equal means of escape. Rather than fading away, the issue remained a continual focus as further accidents stacked up. 1956 saw a Vickers Valiant lose control due to an electrical fault, with the pilot attempting to keep the aircraft aloft long enough for the crew members to escape. The co-pilot ejected safely, while the navigator made it out but died due to the plane being too low for the parachute to open. The pilot did not eject, and passed away with the rest of the crew when the plane exploded post-impact. 1958 saw another Vulcan crash with a loss of all hands, and 1959 saw a Victor go down also with a total loss of life.
Britain was home to Martin-Baker Ltd, a company founded by James Martin and Captain Valentine Baker, that originally manufactured aircraft. After Baker perished in a testing accident, Martin shifted the company’s efforts to safety equipment for aircraft. Having long lobbied the manufacturers of the V-bomber fleet to include ejector seats for all crew members, it took four years before Martin could secure an example for testing. After convincing the RAF that ejecting from the rear of the aircraft could be done, a live test was arranged for the 1 July 1960. At 1000 feet, civilian tester W T Hay ejected safely from Vickers Valiant WP199 in front of the gathered RAF officials. Unfortunately, despite the success, the Air Ministry declined to undertake modifications to the V-bomber fleet, citing issues of cost and need to keep a sufficient number of aircraft on frontline duties.
The issues were not to disappear, however. The early 1960s brought the development of surface-to-air missiles capable of striking the high-altitude V-bombers, necessitating a switch to low-altitude bombing runs in practice if crews were to evade attack. This increased the likelihood of accidents or emergencies occurring at altitudes too low for rear crew members to bail out safely. The incidents kept coming, too, with a Victor crash in 1962 claiming the lives of another two servicemen, and a Vulcan crash in 1964 leading to the deaths of all three rear crewmembers. While the Valiant was withdrawn due to structural fatigue issues in 1965, but the Vulcan and Victor continued to serve.
A Struggle of Concept Versus Reality
Further design work by the Martin-Baker company led to a system that allowed all three rear crew members to eject through a hole only big enough for one seat. This was achieved through a clever mechanism that fired the center seat first, before tilting the outer seats inward to fire through the same hole. However, it came to nought, with only a minor upgrade ever being implemented to the rear cabin. Seats were installed that could swivel in place, facing the crew members towards the escape hatch, and fitted with an inflatable cushion to raise the crew to a standing position for exit. The solution was implemented after testing by the Royal Aircraft Establishment had determined that escape from the rear compartment was practically impossible under even mild G loads that could be experienced in flight.
In the end, despite much hard work and demonstrated solutions, successive governments declined to have the fleet upgraded with ejection seats for all crewmembers. Citing at different times costs, complexity, or logistical issues, the wholesale retrofit of the hardware was left in the too-hard basket. The V-bombers ended up serving long past their planned obsolence of 1970, with the Vulcan retired from its conventional strike duties in 1982, while the Victor ended its days serving as a tanker in the Gulf War before leaving the flight line in 1993.
One can imagine that the many crews that flew these aircraft might have appreciated a little more forethought from the original designers, or even an investment in a retrofit when the engineering problems had been solved by private industry. Fundamentally, the controversy would not have been so serious had there been no ejector seats at all; the decision to provide them to only the front crew was the cause of such consternation. Thus, many pilots and co-pilots were faced with the gut-wrenching decision over whether to eject, or to go down fighting to the last to save one’s brothers in arms. Regardless of the reasoning behind the decisions over the years, it remains cold comfort to those that sadly didn’t make it back from the flightline.