The Hot Seat

08th December 2017

The Martin-Baker ejector seat is an unsung British success story that continues to save lives.

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On 12 September 1942, Captain Valentine Baker, a hugely experienced pilot and World War I veteran of all three fighting forces, took his usual place at the controls of a prototype fighter plane. Baker was the co-founder, along with engineer James Martin, of British aviation manufacturer Martin-Baker Aircraft Company, established eight years earlier. 

It should have been just another test flight – the 10th for this particular model, the MB3, commissioned by the Air Ministry. But it was not to be. Once airborne, the engine seized and during the resulting emergency landing the plane hit a tree stump and cartwheeled. Captain Baker was killed instantly.

James Martin was haunted by his friend’s death and dedicated the future of their company to pilot safety. It was a decision that would save thousands of lives. 

From that dark moment, Martin-Baker went on to become an extraordinary but little-known British success story. Martin invented the modern ejector seat, and 75 years later his company has delivered some 70,000 to 93 air forces around the world. There are currently 17,000 Martin-Baker seats in service in 54 different aircraft types. A counter on the company’s homepage keeps a log of the lives it has saved. The number currently stands at 7,553.

These days, each seat can cost up to £200,000 and is fitted with enough power that, from a zero/zero position (at zero altitude and zero knots, ie, stationary), the pilot can be projected up to 300ft into the air. The parachute is not deployed until the seat “knows” it’s at a high enough altitude and speed to do so safely; all this happens without any action from the pilot. The company is now run by the two sons of James Martin and has received 11 Queen’s Awards for Enterprise across fields such as technological innovation, export achievement and international trade.

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The new direction of the company was a labour of love for Sir James, who was knighted in 1965. After Captain Baker was killed, Sir James was invited to the MOD to investigate how to offer pilots a means of escape in flight. His innovation was a seat that propelled pilots into the air, and a year later an adventurous – and no doubt nervous – employee, one Bernard Lynch, successfully completed the first static ejection. Eighteen months later, Lynch conducted the first mid-air ejection, and went on to complete more than 30 tests in his lifetime. But it wasn’t until 1949 that a pilot was saved in action: Jo Lancaster was flying an Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 aircraft and was forced to eject over Southam, Warwickshire. Since then, a special club has been established, the Ejection Tie Club, for those who owe their lives to a Martin-Baker seat. More than 6,000 members have received a club tie emblazoned with a red triangle – the recognised warning signal for ejection. 

On the company’s website there are testimonials that make for humbling reading. “On July 27, 2003, Martin-Baker saved my life after my EA-6B Prowler caught fire after a catastrophic engine failure over the Persian Gulf,” writes Christina Portnoy. “I am lucky to be ejectee number 5305, with a safe water landing.”

Flight Lieutenant Ian Ferguson – ejectee number 3914 – has the distinction, if that’s the correct word, of experiencing the lowest and fastest survivable ejection in the history of the RAF when his Phantom FGR2 malfunctioned and he ejected at 250ft travelling at 600mph. “I would like to thank Martin-Baker Aircraft Company for saving my life,” he writes, simply. It’s fair to say that many, many others feel the same. 

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Winter 2017 issue

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