Martin-Baker Ejection Seat Made Its First Of 7,722 Saves 75 Years Ago Today

Jo Lancaster escaped from a stricken flying-wing test plane almost 75 years to the day that a Martin Baker seat saved an F-35 pilot.

byThomas Newdick|
Martin baker 75 years of ejections
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Two days ago, the pilot of a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B ejected from the stealth fighter soon after takeoff from Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Their survival was due, in no small part, to their Martin-Baker US16E ejection seat. The remarkable story of these aircrew escape systems stretches back to the immediate postwar period, and it was 75 years ago today that the first Martin-Baker seat was used for real.

On May 30, 1949, British test pilot John Oliver “Jo” Lancaster DFC was at the controls of an Armstrong Whitworth AW52 — a pioneering experimental flying-wing design — when he got into trouble. The jet-powered prototype was one of two that had been built to examine the high-speed characteristics of tailless aircraft with a highly efficient laminar-flow airfoil.

The Armstrong Whitworth AW52. Public Domain Public Domain
Test pilot John Oliver “Jo” Lancaster DFC. Martin-Baker

Lancaster’s landmark ejection, using a pre-series version of the initial Martin-Baker Mk 1 design made him the first British pilot to escape from an aircraft in this way. It also began an unrivaled series of lifesaving events attributed to the company.

The pilot of the F-35B involved in Tuesday’s incident was the 7,772nd to successfully eject using a Martin-Baker seat. That total includes pilots from 107 different operators and involves 188 aircraft types.

The Martin-Baker Mk 1 ejection seat. Martin-Baker
The Martin-Baker US16E ejection seat as used in the F-35. Martin-Baker

However, Martin-Baker’s place in aviation history began with the design and manufacture of aircraft, rather than their escape systems.

As early as 1929, Sir James Martin, an Irish immigrant and engineer, began producing aircraft in the United Kingdom. By the mid-1930s, Martin was working together with Capt. Valentine Baker, a World War I flying ace who had gone on to a career as a civilian flight instructor and later test pilot.

Together, the two men formed the Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd., the first named product of which was the MB1 experimental lightplane. Experience gained with the MB1 fed into a series of fighter prototypes, starting with the MB2 that flew shortly before World War II and the MB3 and MB5 that were tested during the war. None of them received orders although they incorporated some innovative features. The MB5, in particular, offered excellent performance and has often been described as one of the most impressive fighters of World War II that didn’t enter production.

The Martin-Baker MB3. Public Domain

It was the MB3 program, however, that would change the course of the company forever. In September 1942, Baker was testing the fighter which, with six 20mm cannons, was the heaviest-armed aircraft in its class up to that time.

During the flight, the prototype MB3’s Napier Sabre piston engine seized up. Baker attempted an emergency landing, but the fighter’s wingtip struck a tree stump and the aircraft cartwheeled, killing the pilot.

Deeply affected by the loss of his friend, Martin went on to dedicate the rest of his life to pilot safety. Rather than further developing the Martin-Baker fighter series, the future of the company would from now on focus on aircrew escape systems — ejection seats — something that the firm had been looking at since the mid-1930s.

Today, Martin-Baker is the most well-known producer of ejection seats, but it wasn’t the first to develop them.

Company founders James Martin (center) and Valentine Baker (left). Martin-Baker

From very soon after the first crewed fixed-wing aircraft took to the skies, efforts had been made to improve the chances of pilot survival in case they had to abandon them. Early efforts focused on ways to propel the pilot away from the stricken aircraft, after which they could float down to the ground on a parachute.

Different efforts around the world looked at bungee cords, catapults, or compressed air as the means of separating the pilot from the aircraft rapidly and (relatively) safely.

By World War II, the need for such equipment to protect pilots’ lives was more obvious, with high-performance aircraft being much harder to escape from by simply bailing out, due to g-forces and rapid airflow over the airframe, among others. The first practical ejection seats were developed during the conflict by Heinkel in Germany and SAAB in Sweden. They used compressed air or an explosive cartridge to hurl the pilot in their seat out of the cockpit.

In January 1942, German test pilot Helmut Schenk became the first person to escape from a stricken aircraft using an ejection seat, when they lost control of their Heinkel He 280 experimental jet fighter, which was flying as an unpowered glider at the time.

The first prototype Heinkel He 280, which Helmut Schenk successfully ejected from in January 1942. Public Domain

With jets entering service at the end of the war, the requirement for ejection seats became even more pressing, and as aircraft speeds increased, the chances of escaping from them by simply bailing out fell dramatically.

Martin-Baker was now poised to take the lead in what would be a growth subsystem industry.

In January 1945, Bernard Lynch, a company employee, volunteered for the first static ejection using a Martin-Baker pre-Mk 1 seat, and a specially built tower. Showing exceptional bravery, Lynch followed this up with a mid-air test ejection from a modified Gloster Meteor jet fighter, successfully propelling himself out of the rear cockpit at a speed of 320 miles per hour and an altitude of 8,000 feet, in July 1946. Lynch conducted another 16 test ejections.

Bernard Lynch prepares for the first live Martin-Baker ejection seat test, out of a Gloster Meteor aircraft on July 24, 1946. Martin-Baker
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The test pilot’s pre-Mk 1 ejection seat was put to use over Southam, Warwickshire, on May 30, 1949. With the flying-wing aircraft in a dive at 320 miles per hour, it began to encounter pitch oscillation, which quickly became incapacitating. With structural failure seemingly imminent, Lancaster opted to use his ejection seat, floating down safely on his parachute and landing just outside a pub. The AW52 project was canceled soon after, but Martin-Baker’s ejection seat had been well and truly proven.

A Martin-Baker Mk 1 pre-production ejection seat. This example is displayed in front of a Saunders-Roe SRA1 flying-boat jet fighter. Nimbus227/Wikimedia Commons

Following this achievement, the Martin-Baker Mk 1 seat began to be fitted as standard in British military aircraft in the late 1940s.

Manually operated, the Mk 1 seat had an adjustable seat pan to accommodate pilots of differing stature without changing the overall dimensions of the seat. Adjustable footrests were fitted, and integral thigh guards prevented the occupant’s legs from being forced apart by air blast. Four rollers running in a guide-rail assembly bolted to the aircraft structure and guided the seat at the start of the ejection process.

In 2019, Martin-Baker celebrated the 70th anniversary of the first ejection with Jo Lancaster (center), who was also celebrating his 100th birthday. Lancaster died later in the same year. Martin-Baker

Early seats, including those from Martin-Baker, relied upon a solid-propellant charge to eject the pilot, with the charge typically contained in a telescopic tube attached to the seat.

Before long, however, the demands of extraction from aircraft approaching and then exceeding the speed of sound called for more powerful and compact solutions, leading to the introduction of rocket-propelled ejection seats. These new seats also introduced the possibility of ‘zero-zero’ capability — meaning they could be used safely even on the ground and with the aircraft not in motion.

Tests of a Martin-Baker ejection seat destined for the Tempest sixth-generation fighter, using a ground-based rocket sled. BAE Systems

While there have been occasional moves to develop new types of crew escape systems, ejection seats of the kind that were pioneered by Martin-Baker, among others, have endured.

Three-quarters of a century may separate Jo Lancaster’s historic ejection and the F-35B pilot being punched-out on their US16E seat earlier this week. But the egress system in the stealth jet can be traced all the way back to World War II and, in particular, the commitment of Sir James Martin to improve aircrew safety in direct response to the loss of his colleague and friend.

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