As a last-resort to escape a catastrophic emergency, pilots trust an aircraft’s ejection system to carry them safely from danger. While the equipment does the physical work, pilots’ lives are in the hands of maintenance Airmen.
The Aircrew Egress Systems specialists at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., play an integral role in sustaining a pilot’s safety by inspecting and maintaining F-35A Lightning II and F-16 Fighting Falcon ejection escape systems and canopies.
The F-35 and F-16 have a D-ring ejection handle between the pilot’s knees. When pulled, the mechanical system fires explosives to jettison the canopy and activate the ejection system. Gas pressure is released to the back of the seat and activates explosives designed to propel the seat and the pilot away from the aircraft, said Staff Sgt. Michael Farias, 56th Component Maintenance Squadron egress systems craftsman.
When ejecting from an aircraft, pilots accelerate at a rate approximately 12 to 14 times the force of gravity in less than half a second.
“I ejected out on an F-18 due to a cable breaking on the aircraft carrier I was landing on,” said Lt. Col. Jon Vanbragt, 63rd Fighter Squadron F-35A Lightning II instructor pilot. “I’m here today, 16 years later, now married with two children, and a legacy of teaching fighter pilots how to fly due to the diligence of the egress personnel who maintained my ejection seat, and made sure that when the system needed to perform, that it would do so flawlessly. I’m forever indebted to those Airmen, and I continue to be thankful to egress and life support personnel for everything that they do to support the mission.”
Egress specialists perform scheduled and unscheduled maintenance on egress systems to ensure the system is functioning properly. During inspections, the specialists check the egress system’s components for safety, security and serviceability.
“Most of the maintenance includes time changes, which are routine changes for the explosives on the escape system to ensure they’re in line with the life limits,” said Tech. Sgt. Justin Fromm, 56th CMS egress systems craftsman. “A life limit is the life expectancy of the explosives, certain explosives are considered good for a certain length of time.”
When an explosive’s time limits expire, egress system specialists change the explosives, said Fromm.
Another component the flight’s Airmen evaluate is the aircraft’s canopy, which is the see-through enclosure over the top of the cockpit.
CMS evaluates each canopy to ensure it is not flawed and does not impair the pilot’s visibility. The Airmen look for cracks that are the size of a fingernail because they could be in critical areas that could cause a malfunction, said Farias. And, if a canopy’s windshield is cracked or gouged and doesn’t meet inspection criteria, the canopy is replaced.
When an ejection seat or canopy is pulled for an inspection, a two-person team, including a five- and seven-level egress specialist, performs an incoming inspection where they fix the discrepancies and write ups, said Farias. After the item is repaired, a two-person team performs an outgoing inspection to ensure the maintenance was performed correctly.
“We always have a five- and seven-level inspection because egress works on redundancy and we always have to be checking each other,” said Fromm. “It’s imperative that the seat functions the way it should because that could save a person’s life.”
While many maintenance Airmen play a crucial role in ensuring military aircraft perform at peak capacity, the efforts of egress specialists help ensure that pilots can safely eject from an aircraft if necessary.
“Egress literally has the pilot’s life in their hands,” said Vanbragt. “Every time a Luke fighter pilot flies a jet, they strap into an ejection seat. That ejection seat contains hundreds of critical parts that must all work in perfect unison, every single time they are called upon, in order to save the life of the pilot. It’s Egress’s job to ensure that the seat and ejection system are in perfect working condition in the event that the worst case scenario should happen.”