• U.S.

Science: A Way Out

3 minute read

As airplanes fly faster & faster, bailing out gets harder & harder. The airstream, pouring past the plane at 500 m.p.h., smacks the would-be “caterpillar” with the force of a padded pile driver. If he survives this blow, he runs the risk of being slammed against the tail surfaces.

The Navy’s new two-place jet fighter, the Douglas XF3D-1 Skyknight, has a special “escape chute” to help its crew bail out. When the pilot decides to abandon ship, he pulls a toggle. The seatbacks swing away. A door at the rear of the cockpit opens, exposing a passage sloping down and back toward the belly of the plane. At the end is a second door with two leaves. The rear leaf flies off into space. The forward leaf is pushed out hydraulically to form a windscreen. When escaping crewmen slide down the chute, the screen softens the blow from the airstream, and the deadly tail surfaces pass above them harmlessly.

Other jet fighters have “ejection seats” which shoot the pilot clear of the tail by the force of a powder explosion. A small “drag parachute” keeps the seat from tumbling. After the pilot recovers his wits, he detaches himself from the seat and floats down to earth with his own parachute.

Escape chutes and ejection seats are “safe” for speeds up to 500 m.p.h., but no one thinks that they will be used much at higher speeds. When the average-sized pilot, crouched in his seat, enters a 500 m.p.h. airstream, his body is hit (according to Navy calculations) by a pressure blow of 2,813 lbs. At 600 m.p.h., he gets a blow of 4,051 lbs.

To escape alive from the fastest planes, the pilot will need some sort of detachable “capsule.” One possibility is a streamlined cylinder built into the belly of the plane. The pilot in distress would crawl into it and pull a handle. A parachute would then open and drag the cylinder out of the rear of the plane. A more elaborate device (kinder to the pilot) is a detachable cockpit that can be blown free of the plane by a set of explosive bolts.

Another system would require a plane of odd design, putting the cockpit in the rear just ahead of the tail surfaces (see drawing). When the pilot wanted to bail out, he would detach the whole tail-and-cockpit. The plane would fly on, while the tail cone pulled a parachute from behind the pilot’s seat. When it had slowed the cockpit to a safe speed, the pilot could bail out with his own parachute.

A more advanced model would float serenely to earth on a large parachute. It would be equipped with a heater to keep the pilot from freezing to death in the cold upper air. The really de luxe models may be watertight and stocked with provisions to keep the pilot alive for a while if he falls into the sea.

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