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Ejection seat safety: Senators push for review

Nov. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Egress technicians with the 56th Component Maintenance Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., guide an ACES II ejection seat onto an F-16.
Egress technicians with the 56th Component Maintenance Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., guide an ACES II ejection seat onto an F-16. (Senior Airman Tracie Forte / Air Force)
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Two senators are pressing the Air Force to review the safety of its ejection seats following last month’s announcement that an F-16 pilot was killed when he punched out during a steep dive.

Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., have introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization bill that calls on the Air Force to assess the risks of the current ejection seats. The service must investigate whether helmet equipment, such as a night vision or a helmet-mounted cueing system, can cause an increased risk of death or serious injury.

Under the amendment, the Air Force also must analyze how ejection seats protect the head, neck and spinal cord during ejection; analyze any initiatives currently looking at making the ejection process safer; and update Congress on the status of any testing or qualifications on upgraded ejection seats. The amendment is among 507 added to the defense authorization bill, which is expected to be voted on in December.

Last month, the Air Force released its investigation into the January crash that killed Capt. Lucas Gruenther, chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

During night training in inclement weather, Gruenther became spatially disoriented and ejected while flying at a speed of 569 nautical miles per hour, at a dive angle of 16 degrees and at an 18 degree left bank.

During the ejection, Gruenther immediately lost his helmet, which was outfitted with night vision goggles. The ejection seat launched with a left yaw, and there was slack in his harness. This, combined with a 40-G snapback during drogue chute deployment, resulted in his death from severe head and neck trauma, according the investigation.

The investigation concluded that Gruenther misjudged his need to eject. The cause of the mishap was the pilot’s failure to recover from spatial disorientation, due to a combination of weather conditions, the use of night vision goggles, a breakdown in visual scan and the jet’s attitude and speed, wrote accident investigation board president Brig. Gen. Derek Rydholm.

F-16Cs, like the one Gruenther was flying, are outfitted with the F-16 Advanced Concept Ejection System II. ACES II systems are also used in the A-10 Thunderbolt, F-15 Eagle and B-2 Spirit, according to the Air Force.

Udall spokesman James Owens said Gruenther’s crash highlighted possible problems with the current seats used by the Air Force. “The Aviano incident has raised concerns about whether the current seats have adequate protections for pilots wearing advanced helmets and other helmet-mounted equipment that might not have been in use when the seats were designed,” Owens said.

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