Generating Airpower: Egress express
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- (This article is part of a series featuring the 35th Maintenance Group on their ability to generate airpower for the 35th Fighter Wing's Wild Weasels. The 35 MXG is compiled of 22 career fields that support the mission of the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, the only SEAD wing in Pacific Air Forces.)
When an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot walks into Misawa's egress work bay, it might not be such a strange thing -- egress is responsible for maintaining the seats and canopies for every F-16 Fighting Falcon here. But when a pilot walks in with his entire family trailing behind him, it's rare.
So rare, in fact, that in Master Sgt. Thomas Hakala's 18-year career, he has only experienced it six times. But every time it happens, it's a good thing -- it means his shop did their job.
It also means a pilot cheated death by way of ejection; that for whatever reason, a last-ditch effort to escape a plummeting fighter jet was successful and the pilot survived to live another day.
Although well worth it, the ejection process is revered as a brutal experience. Staff Sgt. John Herrmann, 35th Maintenance Squadron egress systems craftsman, said when the handle is pulled, the pilot gets "beaten up pretty bad."
The ejection pull ignites an incendiary process that sends ballistic gas pressure through multiple hoses and components that reach detonation lines that essentially explode the canopy off the jet, Herrmann explained. The canopy is designed to release off the jet to the left, but realistically it's left to the mercy of the wind. The next step - and the most painful - is the actual ejection.
The pilot leaves the jet at around 14 G-forces, compressing the spine a full half inch. It's a large reason the Air Force only allows two ejections before a pilot loses flying status.
"I know I wouldn't want to sit in that thing when it goes off," Herrmann admitted, further explaining that the seat essentially turns into a human jetpack upon ignition.
"There are two rockets on the bottom to help keep them stable at the same trajectory so they're not flipping over and twirling around through the sky," he continued.
Once the airborne pilot and seat approach a certain distance from the ground during descent, an internal computer Hermann called "the brain" will initiate a deployment sequence that separates the pilot from seat and deploys a parachute.
By the time this happens, the hope is the pilot has regained consciousness. Hakala said most pilots black out for a few seconds.
"The force just drains all the blood out of their head," said Hakala.
While landing a parachute poses a challenge, it pales in comparison to being rocketed out of a moving jet. Because of the diverse missions Misawa's Wild Weasel pilots carry out, they have to be prepared to traverse all types of landscapes if things go haywire. Thankfully, egress is one step ahead.
Along with tediously inspecting and maintaining canopies and seats, they're also responsible for installing pilots' survival kits. The kit contains a multitude of things prepared by aircrew flight equipment; including pyrotechnic signaling items, life sustaining items and life rafts that deploy after water submersion.
"Our guys work a lot of hours to get these jets perfect," Hakala said, "and the only time our system is tested is during an emergency by a pilot."
It leaves zero room for error.
Every ejection Hakala has been associated with has been successful, and he said the best word to describe his feeling of that is "satisfying." Once safe, the "thank you" trip back to egress usually takes some time - mainly due to the recovery process after undergoing an ejection.
When pilots come through for the visit, it's a mini-celebration.
"Some have come back with their whole families," Hakala said. "They write us thank you letters, their kids draw us pictures to put up and they'll walk us through the entire process."
It's a fascinating process, and sometimes almost surreal.
"We had one pilot eject who said while he was airborne from the ejection, his plane was flying around him in circles," Hakala remarked. "He said it was the weirdest thing not being in an aircraft but watching it fly around unmanned."
In the summer of 2012 Misawa had its most recent ejection, and the pilot made it back safe after being rescued from the Pacific Ocean by a Japanese research vessel alongside civilian and military vessels from the U.S. and Japan that responded to the incident.
Herrmann was at the office the day that pilot came through to thank egress for their effective work that kept him alive. He said he distinctly remembers how beat up the pilot was, but was left with a stronger feeling of accomplishment.
"It definitely made the job more real," he said. "After talking to the guy, I can tangibly understand how important we are. That was probably the moment everything came to a head."
For Herrmann, the confidence of his work now outweighs the nerves, but knowing his work can mean the survival of another human being is always in the back of his mind.
"The nervousness doesn't ever go fully away," he said. "It keeps you sharp. I'm more confident after all these years and never second guess myself."
That mindset is adopted throughout the shop of about 15 Airmen. It comes with the territory, and their motto is: When all else fails, Egress prevails!
"It's a no fail mission for us," Hakala said. "Zero discrepancies. These seats are made within tolerances of perfection; there can be no damage on them. We take pride in giving pilots confidence that our work will save their lives."