Taking off from aircraft carriers is never routine, and there have been many costly accidents which could have been avoided. Fortunately, ejector seats have saved countless lives – including some whose planes were already submerged underwater. One such incident happened on October 13, 1954, when Bruce MacFarlane, a Royal Navy aviator, took off from the deck of the British aircraft carrier Albion in the Mediterranean. Just a few seconds later, his Westland Wyvern plane plunged into the sea.
The Wyvern was a powerful and heavily loaded aircraft powered by an enormous engine. It featured two contra-rotating propellors at the front of the aircraft, each rotating in a different direction. Although it had entered service a year prior, the Wyvern had a problematic development history and Albion’s cruise had identified a serious problem when taking off; the g-forces imposed on the plane caused a “flame out”, resulting in the Wyverns dropping into the sea in front of the carrier.
When MacFarlane’s plane crashed underwater, he had no time to activate his ejector seat. Fortunately, the Westland Wyvern was one of the few non-jet aircraft which featured an ejection seat which MacFarlane used in a way the designers had never intended. Astonishingly, he became the first ever pilot to successfully eject from an aircraft underwater.
The technology behind the ejector seat was still in its infancy and had only encountered a few successful ejections. As the jet age was approaching, the seat’s designers, Martin-Baker, had not even considered whether the seats would work as intended under underwater conditions. It is a testament to the capability of the seat and MacFarlane’s quick thinking that enabled the pilot to pull the handle a second time and succeed at ejecting, even when being dragged deeper underwater by the 24,000-tonne aircraft carrier above.
Martin-Baker is an aircraft seat manufacturer, currently based in the United Kingdom. After being founded in the 1930’s by Sir James Martin and Captain Valentine Baker, the company has since become an industry leader in ejection seat technology and has built up an impressive clientele and an enviable reputation for its products.
Bruce MacFarlane will forever be remembered as the first ever pilot to successfully eject from a submerged aircraft. Having pulled off a feat of survival which was thought to be impossible, MacFarlane returned back to his squadron with a newfound reputation as a remarkable aviator who overcame the odds.
The successful underwater ejection of Bruce MacFarlane is an inspiring example of the importance of innovation, bravery and ingenuity required to keep pilots safe in dangerous situations. Ejector seat technology has become essential in saving lives and thanks to the pioneering work of Martin-Baker, as well as MacFarlane’s courage, these seats remain a crucial safety tool used in countless aircraft today.