Rethinking the Ejection Seat in a New Age of Aviation

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Later this month, carrier-based aviation leaders from across the military and its services will gather in Sparks, Nevada, for the Tailhook Association Symposium. This annual event brings together the aircraft carrier and aviation community to discuss the combat readiness and requirements of the Navy personnel that are responsible for carrier-based aviation operations.

And this year’s event comes at a very interesting and unique time for this community – with shifts in weaponry and warfare that are poised to change how aerial combat missions are planned and conducted.

The emergence of peer threats has our military once again facing sophisticated adversaries with military capabilities that are on par with our own. The adversaries of tomorrow have advanced capabilities – including hypersonics and other long-range effectors – that need to be accounted for in military operations and mission planning.

If aircraft carriers or forward operating bases close to the adversary can be targeted, then the emergence and increased adoption of these weapons will require missions to cover greater distances.

Simultaneously, we’re seeing a modern conflict play out in front of our eyes in the form of the ongoing war in Ukraine. This terrible conflict is providing our military with a number of important lessons learned about conducting successful operations in 2023 and beyond – when peer combatants leverage modern weapons and military platforms in a contested environment.

Because of the advancements in military weaponry and what we’ve learned from the conflict in Ukraine, we know that aerial superiority in future conflicts will be difficult to establish and maintain. We know that our manned fighter aircraft will be put in danger. And we know that the danger they’ll face will happen further away from friendly forces that can offer assistance or rescue.

Longer, more dangerous missions
As hypersonics continue to evolve and become a larger part of modern warfare, there will be an increased need to operate from further away. These weapons are well suited for anti-access and area denial – with high speed and maneuverability that enables them to impact targets over larger areas.

If aircraft carriers or forward operating bases close to the adversary can be targeted, then the emergence and increased adoption of these weapons will require missions to cover greater distances.

Today, we’re seeing fighter jets and other military aircraft needing to fly longer sorties and missions than we’ve ever seen before. Average sorties exceed eight or ten hours in length and often involve multiple refueling operations. This is a far cry from the traditional sortie length of anywhere from one to two hours.

But these sorties aren’t just longer. They’re also more dangerous.

As we’ve witnessed during the war in Ukraine, modern air defenses are incredibly capable of denying air superiority in a contested environment. As Gen. James Hecker, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe, recently explained, “The problem is both of the Russian as well as the Ukrainian success in integrated air and missile defense have made much of those aircraft worthless. They’re not doing a whole lot because they can’t go over and do close air support.”

This sentiment was echoed by Gen. Charles Brown, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, when he told attendees at the Air and Space Forces Association Symposium in March, “We cannot predict the future of what kind of environment we’re going to fight in, for one, but I fully expect it’ll be much more contested…”

With fighter pilots being forced to fly longer, more dangerous sorties against increasingly capable, near-peer adversaries, more thought and attention needs to be paid to the ejection seats in which they’re piloting their aircraft.

With fighter pilots being forced to fly longer, more dangerous sorties against increasingly capable, peer adversaries, more thought and attention needs to be paid to the ejection seats in which they’re piloting their aircraft.

More survivable, more comfortable
Imagine a scenario where you’re flying a mission that could take eight to ten hours. You’re strapped into an ejection seat that allows minimal movement or adjustment. And – unlike on a commercial flight – you can’t get up to stretch your legs or pretend you need something from the overhead compartment.

Now, imagine that four hours into that mission, you’re forced to eject from your aircraft. The physical distance – alone – between you and allied forces means that any help or assistance could be at least four hours away. You now have to survive – isolated in a potentially hostile and austere environment – for hours before you can be rescued.

Both of these challenges are modern problems that are a direct result of the evolving nature of warfare, and the changes that we’re seeing in air combat missions. They’re problems that didn’t exist when the average sortie was just one or two hours in length.

Thankfully, industry partners have been listening to pilots, and identifying answers to some of the questions that this new age of aerial combat is creating for the military. At the Tailhook Association Symposium, decision-makers for the Navy will have the opportunity to interact with their industry partners and see some of the innovative solutions they’ve created for these problems.

For example, should a pilot need to eject from their aircraft four or five hours into an eight or ten-hour mission, will they have everything they need to survive?

Traditionally, ejection seats have featured limited space for survival kits that could help them survive in austere environments for extended periods of time. However, new solutions – including the ACES CVN ejection seat that was introduced by Collins Aerospace – have been designed with this requirement in mind.

The new ACES CVN ejection seat has an enlarged area under the seat that is designed to hold a much larger, more flexible, and more complete survival kit capable of sustaining a pilot for a longer period of time. Should a pilot need to eject from their aircraft a long distance from assistance and rescue, the larger survival kit will ensure that they have everything they need until help can arrive.

The addition of a larger survival kit can also play a role in pilot comfort. Historically, pilots have compensated for inadequate survival kits by storing additional survival materials on their person. This increases the weight of the pilot, and puts unnecessary strain on their bodies – especially at high speeds.

The adversaries of tomorrow have advanced capabilities – including hypersonics and other long-range effectors – that need to be accounted for in military operations and mission planning.

Finally, changes are being made to the ejection seat to ease the overall comfort of the pilot. Leveraging advanced medical and healthcare technologies invented to benefit the health and comfort of patients that are forced to sit or remain prone for long periods of time, advanced ejection seats are being designed that alleviate the discomfort that pilots experience when flying longer sorties.

For example in the ACES CVN ejection seat, an air bladder has been integrated within the seat cushions. This air bladder inflates and deflates automatically – shifting the pilot’s weight, reducing the formation and stress on pressure points, and generally making it so that long sorties are no longer torturous on the pilot.

The nature of aerial combat is changing as our military shifts its focus back to peer adversaries, and as weapons technology advances. While many carrier-based aviation leaders may identify solutions – such as flying longer missions and sorties – to overcome the larger, operational problem, they can’t forget about the impact on the actual pilot. As sorties grow in time and distance, it’s time to reevaluate solutions that we have started to take for granted – including the ejection seat.

At Tailhook, carrier-based aviation leaders will get to see new solutions that do more than just ensure pilots can safely eject from their aircraft in emergencies. They’ll also see industry partners proactively working to make ejection seats better at meeting the needs of pilots in a changing battlespace.