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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Firm Hails 50 Years of Ejections

LONDON -- Fifty years ago Bernard Lynch blasted himself out of a Meteor jet fighter, parachuted to the ground and walked into a nearby pub for a pint of beer.

The mustachioed Irishman had just successfully completed the first live test of the Martin-Baker ejection seat, a device that has saved the lives of more than 6,500 pilots and aircrew.

After downing his reviving ale, Lynch described the experience of sitting in an ejection seat and being fired out of the Meteor's cockpit into the slipstream at a height of 2,500 meters as like "being thrown into a brick wall."

The Germans developed an ejection seat in 1942 and the Swedish company Saab tested its own version a year later, but the British-built Martin-Baker seat has captured three-quarters of the Western market.

Even in peace time, the company says there are two or three ejections weekly from combat aircraft around the world, usually due to engine failure.

The Martin-Baker Aircraft Company was founded by James Martin, an irascible engineer from Northern Ireland who conducted a long feud with the British government, which he believed did not appreciate the value of his invention in saving the lives of air force pilots.

Martin, a self-educated farmer's son whose inventions included a device that allowed aircraft to cut through the cables of barrage balloons, designed several fighter aircraft that were not taken up by the government in World War II.

In 1944, he was asked by the Air Ministry to work on an ejection seat, the product that set his company on course for the next 50 years.

With the advent of jet aircraft flying at high speeds, it was no longer possible for pilots in trouble to open the canopy and jump out unaided, as in the Battle of Britain, before pulling the rip-cord and parachuting to the ground.

The first ejection seats were developed by building ground-based metal towers which allowed the seats -- and volunteer testers -- to be fired upwards on runners without flying off into the air.

When fitted to aircraft, the early seats blasted pilots into the air using an explosive cartridge, and in the 1960s there was a switch to rocket-powered seats.

These fire ejectees out of their aircraft at a rate that will cause them serious injury unless they are strapped in -- accelerating from zero to 200 kilometers per hour in less than a second after they pull the yellow and black handle between their knees.

The first person to use the Martin-Baker ejection seat in earnest was Joe Lancaster, now aged 77, who in 1949 was a test pilot at the controls of an experimental "flying wing" aircraft, the Armstrong Whitworth AW52.

A newly published biography of Sir James Martin, written by his great-niece Sarah Sharman, describes how Lancaster's aircraft suddenly hit turbulence and began shaking violently, throwing the pilot about so he could no longer even focus on his cockpit instruments.

Lancaster ejected successfully, avoiding a canal and breaking his fall by crashing through a hedge. Rescuers found him drinking tea in a nearby farmhouse.

He had suffered a chipped shoulder bone, some cracked vertebrae and a lot of bruises. It had taken about 15 seconds from when the aircraft started shaking until he ejected from the cockpit, feeling "like a pea in a matchbox."

Since Lynch and Lancaster put the Martin-Baker seat through its early paces, it has been used by the air forces and navies of more than 50 countries.

The first woman to eject with a Martin-Baker seat was Lieutenant Linda Hyde of the U.S. Navy, a crew member on an A-6E Intruder that got into trouble during a practice mission off the coast of Florida in 1991.

"There was a bright flash of light as the seat went through the canopy," she recalled. "I was really angry, too. I remember thinking that this ruins my whole day. I had dinner plans for later."

Sir James Martin died in 1981 at the age of 87, having never lost his contempt for government meddling in his work.

At Buckingham Palace, he once told then prime minister Harold Wilson: "Mr. Prime Minister, you know that our line of business is ejection seats."

Then, referring to the official residences of the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer, he added: "Now if you bought a large number of these seats and fitted them to some of the useless people you have at No. 10 [Downing Street] and the building next door and fired them through the roof, you could then make a clean start."