As long as you are only flying at about half the speed of sound, an ejection from a U.S. military fighter jet probably won’t kill you—or even hurt much.
That’s according to a March report from the Pentagon inspector general.
Pilot ejection is a rare event, occurring only once per 100,000 flight hours, the Air Force says. And defenders of the F-35’s new Martin-Baker ejection seat and the F-35 program in general are quick to say how not only rare but also dangerous an ejection is—the suggestion perhaps being that an unsafe ejection seat only adds marginally to the risk.
The reality, however, is that ejections are not normally dangerous. And when they are, it almost never has to do with a problem with the ejection seat.
First, ejections most often occur at relatively slow speeds close to those replicated in recent mannequin tests to gauge the safety of the Martin-Baker seat. In the Air Force over the last decade, the inspector general report found, ejections occurred at speeds slower than 450 knots (517 miles per hour) fully 93 percent of the time. The speed of sound, by comparison, is 666 knots.
More ejections occurred in the 150-199 knot range than in any other. That’s near the 160 knot speed of the mannequin tests (160 knots is 184 miles per hour).
Moreover, pilots survive most ejections. Their injuries, when they happen at all, are usually not serious. And, significantly, the injuries are almost never caused by a problem with the ejection seat itself.
Of the 189 Air Force ejections over the last decade at 450 knots or slower, only 24 caused major injury or death (7 deaths). “Ejection shock” was only at issue in one of these cases. Deaths and major injuries were instead caused by a host of different things, such as windblast, collision with the ground, hypothermia or burns, according to the report.