HOW TO BE MARRIED TO A MARINE FIGHTER PILOT--A Marine Corps pilot's wife: F-4s, F/A-18s and aviators from my perspective.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Aviator Brief IV: To Eject or Not to Eject

The Phantom F-4 came equipped with a Martin-Baker mkH7 ejection seat. Aviators fly planes. This is important to remember when discussing ejections. An aviator without a plane to fly becomes just a Marine, not a bad thing--but not as good, either. Ejections guaranteed a pilot would look bad at the field by abandoning a multi-million dollar piece of machinery to crash and burn.

Aviators did not want to eject. But plane wings could fall off; engines inhaled birds through the turbine blades--something known as FOD--Foreign Object Damage; or equipment could malfunction at a critical point in flight, creating an unrecoverable airplane. Those were regrettable, but not the pilot’s fault. A pilot who ejected in these circumstances and survived received sympathy and joined the Lucky Bastard Club--an unofficial community, as well as the Martin Baker Tie Club--an official honor and tie given to all pilots who eject from a plane with the aid of a Martin-Baker seat. The count currently stands at seventy-two hundred pilots saved. Most of the time, ejection seats worked.

But too many things could go wrong with an ejection, not all of them dependent on the manufacture of the seat. First, the canopy had to be blown off. If not, the pilot or RIO would impact the thick plastic. The plastic would win. Then, an explosive had to explode under the seat to send it and the aviator up the rails, pulling ten to twelve G’s. Elbows, knees, and shoulders needed to be tucked in or the force of the ejection would break, dislocate, or mangle. A rocket had to shoot the seat free of the plane. If the plane traveled at too high a rate of speed, the jet blast of air would hit the aviator like a brick wall. The jet blast would win. The parachute had to deploy properly and the aviator had to come down somewhere he could be recovered, preferably not in the fireball of his crashed bird. Pilots thought paratroopers crazy for jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. So there was a corollary to Rather Be Dead Than Look Bad At the Field: Airplanes Are Meant To Be Flown, Not Jumped Out Of.

A Musing: This reminds me of that commercial where people are in extremely uncomfortable situations and the voiceover says, “Want to get away?” However, the people are not at risk of dying like a pilot with a malfunctioning aircraft, they are only at risk of dying of embarrassment.


I have chosen to live my life without an ejection seat.

As a child I feared so many things: embarrassment, my father’s anger, being caught doing something I shouldn’t, letting someone down. I never feared the dark. I never feared death. I never feared strangers. I feared the monsters I created and that were closest to me.

And when I did what I knew I should not--why do we do those things?--I almost died from the dread of what might happen when I was found out. A friend of mine--who is Catholic--calls this Catholic guilt. I have not found it to be religion specific since the Jewish writers I’ve read think they own guilt--or a least their mothers are the masters of it. I am sure the Protestants and the Buddhists have their own versions of ownership.

Part of my journey to live without choosing to eject has been: Doing what is right as much as I am able, then facing what happens head on. I’m only responsible for flying my own plane in life and making sure I do regular maintenance of my body, my brain, and my heart.

I am not responsible for other planes who might choose to crash into my life, or for bird-strikes, or for unforeseen maintenance mishaps. I listen to my conscience, but try to live without the dread of guilt.

It’s tough--and I don’t always do it right--and then I feel bad. But not as bad as I used to feel, and not for as long.


  1. I really enjoy reading this blog, you speak from your heart, good or bad. In just few words you are able to richly convey your thoughts and feelings to others. I can feel your joy & your pain, it must not be easy to do that, but you do it very well and make it look easy. It sure seems you are living an awesome life!!

  2. Thank you! I don't know how awesome my life is, but I try not to FOD my own engines. Honesty and kindness to others help keep me flying.