The F-4 Phantom is a supersonic jet fighter loved by people like me who were lucky to have flown it. It was a great airplane to fly, but it was also a very dangerous machine. Whenever you throw an airplane at the ground at high dive angles and high descent rates, fly in formation with other fighters or jink back and forth in real or simulated aerial combat, bad things can happen. It was always a comfort to me knowing that when I flew the Phantom I was sitting on a wonderful life-saving device known as the Martin Baker MK-H7 ejection seat.
The F-4 ejection seat saved many lives. When activated a rocket motor fired and blasted the seat and its occupant out of the cockpit and away from the speeding F-4. The Martin Baker seat had a zero zero capability meaning that in theory if a person was sitting in the cockpit while the airplane was parked and stationary on the ground and fired the seat (zero altitude and zero airspeed) the person would be launched 300 feet in the air, the chute would open and the person would safely float back to earth.
Here is some pertinent information about the MK-H7 ejection seat taken from the F-4 owner’s manual aka the TO-1F-4E-1:
The MK-H7 ejection seat system can provide the crew with a safe and efficient escape from the aircraft. The seat is propelled from the aircraft by an ejection gun on the back of the seat which is assisted by a rocket motor on the bottom of the seat. . . . If necessary, ejection can be accomplished at ground level between zero and 550 knots airspeed with wings level and no sink rate providing the crewmember does not exceed a maximum boarding weight of 247 pounds. . . .
During dual automatic ejection initiated from either cockpit, the rear seat fires . . . approximately 0.54 seconds after initiation. Front canopy jettison is initiated after approximately 0.75 seconds and the front sequence actuator will fire the front seat automatically approximately 1.39 seconds after initiation. This ensures adequate clearance between the two ejection seats and the aircraft canopies.
The last paragraph above says that the difference in time from when the back seat fires until the front seat fires is .85 seconds.
One Second – the Difference Between Life and Death
When I was in F-4 RTU (replacement training unit) in 1971 – 1972 at Luke AFB, Arizona, learning how to fly the Phantom there was a tragic F-4 accident on the Gila Bend bombing range. Two students were in an F-4 doing practice dive bombing (probably 30% dive angle, but it could have been 45%, both of which were common dive angles). The pilot rolled in to drop his practice bomb, but he was too steep. Both the flight leader and the range control officer warned the pilot on the radio that he was too steep.
The time between roll in and pull up is between 5 – 10 seconds depending on the dive angle, the roll in altitude and the release altitude of the particular bomb. There is little margin for error when the airplane is screaming toward the earth at 450 knots in a 30% dive bomb. At some point in the dive the altitude needed to recover the airplane without hitting the ground becomes more than the airplane’s altitude over the ground. When that happens the crew will either die or eject with the possibility of death or serious injury.
Either or both the flight leader or the range office recognized the students’ F-4 could not avoid hitting the ground and yelled over the radio for the crew to eject. It was obvious to those watching the diving airplane that it was going to crash. I don’t recall who initiated the ejection, but both ejection seats fired. The backseater lived and the frontseater died when he hit the ground before his parachute opened. Had the ejection sequence been intiated ONE SECOND EARLIER, the frontseater would have lived.
Flying Fighters Was/Is Dangerous
I knew many guys who flew the Phantom who ejected and lived. I knew some who died in the F-4. When I was in flying the F-4 it was not possible to get life insurance other than one $35,000 military life insurance policy. Commercial life insurance companies did not sell life insurance to fighter pilots because they had too high of a risk of dying.
I saw three fighters crash. The first crash I witnessed occurred the day I arrived in Korea at Osan Air Base in May or June of 1972 (can’t remember when I actually arrived there). I was waiting on the flight line for a passenger plane to take me to Kunsan AB, Korea, where my squadron was based. I noticed several fire engines racing out to the runway. This was a frequent event because whenever an airplane declared an emergency the fire engines were routinely deployed to the runway in case they were needed.
Since I was bored waiting I decided to watch and see what the emergency was all about. I could see an F-4 making a landing approach with a lot of black smoke trailing behind it. As I watched the airplane suddenly plunged to the ground and blew up. The crew ejected safely. I found out later that the airplane had an engine fire. The pilot shut down what he thought was the engine that was on fire, but he actually shut down the good engine. The accident report said that the maintenance people had mistakenly reversed the fire warning lights. The pilot’s instruments told him exactly the opposite as far as which engine was on fire.
The second airplane crash I witnessed was an F-4 from my squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, during the winter of 1973. I describe that accident in my story called “The Gibb LADD.” The third crash I saw was a T-38 trainer that had some problem with its landing gear that resulted in the aircrew ejecting and abandoning the airplane rather than trying to land it. I never did learn what happened in that crash.
The Martin Baker MK-H7 Ejection Seat
I loved my ejection seat, but it scared the daylights out of me. People died because of ejection seat accidents. If the seat fired when it was not supposed to somebody could die. There were maintenance men who died while working in the cockpit of the F-4 because they did something that inadvertently caused the seat to fire.
The first thing the F-4 pilot was supposed to do when he got to the F-4 before a flight was a Before Exterior Inspection (Front Cockpit) check. The first three items in the F-4 checklist relate to the ejection seat and are:
1. Face curtain and seat mounted initiator safety pins – INSTALLED
2. Canopy interlock cable & interdictor link safety pin assembly – INSTALLED CORRECTLY & ATTACHED TO CANOPY
3. Lower ejection handle guard – UP
The following is the beginning parts of the Front Cockpit Interior Check checklist that involved the ejection seat:
2. Leg restraint lines – BUCKLED & SECURED
3. Harness and personal equipment leads – FASTEN
4. Ejection seat height – ADJUST
5. Face curtain & seat mounted initiator safety pins – REMOVED
The ejection seat had 7 safety pins all of which had to be removed for the seat to fire. When the F-4 was not actually occupied by a crew before, during and after a flight, the ground crew always inserted all seven safety pins into their insertion points in the seat. All seven pins were tied together with a nylon line. The purpose of these pins was to prevent the accidental firing of the seat.
When a crew member arrived at the airplane for a flight, the crew chief normally would have already removed six of the seven safety pins and put the six pins and the nylon line that attached the pins into a pouch and laid pouch on the top of the seat. Before I sat in the ejection seat I always made sure that all six of the pins that were supposed to be removed were in fact removed. I did not remove the last safety pin (the face curtain pin) until I was completely strapped into the seat. To get strapped in I had to do the following:
1. Connected the two D rings on my parachute harness to the two snap connectors on the seat survival kit to connect the the kit to me. The survival kit had a radio, water, food and other survival items in case of ejection in the boonies.
2. Connected my lap belt to strap me into the seat.
3. Connected both of my leg restraints. Each leg had two garters – one that went around the calf just above the boot and the other that went around the thigh just above the knee. These four garters were connected to two nylon lines that went into the bottom of the ejection seat. During an ejection the seat pulled the nylon lines tight which caused both legs to be locked close to the seat to prevent the legs from flailing in the wind stream at high speeds, which could severely injure legs.
4. Connected both parachute risers (lines connected to the parachute) to my parachute harness. The F-4’s parachute was built into the top of the ejection seat, which required that pilots attach their parachute harness to the parachute risers. It was very nice not to have to lug a heavy parachute around like the F-105 drivers had to do.
After completing the four steps listed above I pulled the seventh pin out of the face curtain and inserted it in the pouch with the other six pins and counted to make sure all seven pins were in the pouch. I then stowed the pouch until I landed and replaced the seventh pen into the top of the seat.
The F-4 ejection seat system was designed to prevent the seat from firing if the canopy was attached to the air-frame. There was a steel cable that had one end permanently attached to the back of the canopy and the other end was attached to a safety pin that went into the banana links on the top of the seat. The seat would not fire unless that safety pin was removed. Normally when an ejection was initiated the first thing that happened was the canopy thrusters on the bulkhead just below the canopy pushed up and caused the canopy to begin to open. As soon at the front of the canopy opened enough to allow the air-stream to go underneath the front of the canopy the massive amount of air caused the canopy to rapidly open and depart the air-frame taking the steel cable and the safety pin with it.
Fortunately I never had to eject from a Phantom. Nor did I ever come close to ejecting. I did have one very bad emergency where on landing I was ready to eject if the slightest thing went wrong, but the landing was smooth even though it was 200+ knots without normal brakes and no nose gear steering. That’s a story for another day.
Watch Phil Describe His Martin Baker MK-H7 Ejection Seat
A Video about the Martin Baker Company & Its Ejection Seats