Aircrew egress: Giving pilots peace of mind

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

Ejecting from an aircraft isn’t anything a pilot wants to do, but in the case of an emergency they may have to. Thankfully, the U-2 Dragon Lady and the T-38 Talon are equipped with ejection seats which allow Beale’s pilots to exit at a moment’s notice.

 

The ejection seats are so vital to pilot safety, they require a highly-trained and award-winning group of Airmen to maintain them known as aircrew egress.

 

“We maintain the life-sustaining ejection systems,” said Staff Sgt. Walter Lewis, 9th Maintenance Squadron aircrew egress craftsman. “Basically, we make sure the pilots can eject safely in case of an emergency.”

 

According to Lewis, the egress process is a complex series of controlled explosions, which must occur in a chain reaction to ensure the egress process works correctly.

 

“When the pilot ejects there is a sequence of events, the pilot pulls the D-ring which fires an initiator that sends gas pressure to each explosive,” he explained. “Every explosive fires a different item. There are explosives which fire their lap belt, inertia reel, and foot retractors.”

 

Servicing all of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing’s manned aircraft keeps the aircrew egress team busy.

 

“In a typical week we could have up to six aircraft we are working on,” said Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Sandlin, 9th MXS assistant section chief. “We only have two shifts so it’s high tempo when we have seats in the shop. When the wrenches are turning, it's all business.”

 

The shop’s maintenance is thorough. So much so that whenever a seat is pulled out of an aircraft for any reason they must perform multiple inspections and repair inconsistencies that are found before it’s installed back in the aircraft.

 

“We perform inspections every day,” said Lewis. “We take the seats apart, clean them, and repaint them. We also check the hoses which transfer ballistic pressure to the explosives. We put nitrogen through the hoses to make sure they are working correctly.”

 

In addition, the maintenance performed by aircrew egress must accomplish a variety of other tasks unique to their shop.

 

“We have to wear three hats,” said Sandlin. “We aren’t technically flightline, but we are on the flightline all the time. We aren't really a back shop because we have to take out the seats in order to work on them. We also have to maintain our munitions ensuring we maintain our licenses and perform our inspections.”

 

Sandlin credits the work ethic and the professionalism of his Airmen in overcoming all of the unique challenges the aircrew egress team faces.

 

“We have very skilled maintainers. Everyone is 100 percent when it comes to our maintenance and they have to be because somebody's life could be depending on it,” said Sandlin. “I’ve experienced ejections in my career and when you meet a pilot or their family and they are thankful, you realize that’s what we do and why we do it.”