When a military aviator's plane is in trouble — big trouble — sometimes the only option is to "punch out," or bail out of the aircraft in the rocket-powered ejection seat. In Punching Out, Air Force veteran James Cross shares stories of the small number of pilots and aviators who have survived rocketing out of their planes.
Pulling the ejection lever triggers a sharp and dramatic transition from a noisy, dangerous cockpit to the sudden peace of floating back down to Earth in a parachute — and it's incredibly jarring. "They first have to face wind blasts — 400, 500 miles per hour," Cross tells NPR's Neal Conan, "and possibly an exploding aircraft all around them."
Ejection seats are not powered by rockets alone. "The rockets are not sufficient in the process of igniting, powering up, to get a man out of the cockpit in time," says Cross. But what works is an explosive charge. "Nothing except a small piece of dynamite or explosive underneath the pilot would get that seat up, out and moving fast enough for the rockets even to engage."
The ejection seats are tested by test pilots, who "press it to the edge and over." That way, "they discover the problems and the dangers, and they try to fix it so that any man or woman fighter pilot who gets into that jet in combat can't go anywhere they haven't already been."
In the early days of flight, before ejection seats, pilots in danger jumped without parachutes. "That's where they were in the 20s and 30s when this began," says Cross, and the thinking in those days was that a pilot with a parachute might use it too soon, and not nurse an expensive aircraft to the ground. "That kind thinking led to not wearing parachutes, in some sort of sense of bravado. But it only had one result: Pilots need parachutes."
Climbing or jumping out of spinning or burning aircraft — as former President George H.W. Bush did during World War II — is "an unbelievable set of unlikely events," says Cross. But the ejection seat made getting pilots out of planes in trouble a more predictable process.
The ranks of aviators who have punched out are filled mostly by men, but one woman, Lt. Linda Maloney, ejected in 1991. She was flying a training exercise over Jacksonville, Fla., in an A-6 Intruder when the pilot of her aircraft lost control of the plane and ordered her to eject. "She got bruised and battered just like the guys," says Cross, and the search and rescue crew was a little startled when they realized she was a woman.
Pilots who've punched out join a group called the Caterpillar Club. It's a World War II-era organization founded by the maker of the ejection seats. "It was such an unusual phenomenon when it first began," explains Cross. They called it the Caterpillar Club after the silk of the parachute that saves their lives. "I think the most impressive part" he says, is that now, there are "7,000 or 8,000 lives that have been saved by ejection seats."