I joined the Royal Air Force in 1990 as an A Tech W, which got changed to Eng Tech W for some reason only known to those who sit in offices miles away from any Aircraft, but to everyone else I became an Armourer.
To many people Armourer’s are simply there to fit and remove a variety of weapons from Aircraft, or they’re the angry guy issuing and receiving small arms through the hatch at the Armoury… while that much is all true, the trade as it was back when I served was vast in scope. From small arms, aircraft carriage and release systems, aircraft weapons, to bomb disposal etc, but the pinnacle of the trade’s responsibilities were the Aircraft Assisted Escape Systems (AAES) or to the laymen Ejection Seats – most RAF Armourers loathe the term Ejector Seat, that’s something for James Bond! We were responsible for both the 2nd Line ‘bay’ maintenance of the seats, and the ancillary equipment, as well as the 1st Line fitting and removal from Aircraft.
So I did my trade training at Royal Air Force Cosford, learning on the Jaguar’s MK9 seats. We learned just how ‘technical, and complicated’ these critical pieces of hardware were, and just how dangerous they could be if not given the proper care, attention and respect. The training covered both the 2nd line maintenance and the 1st Line fitting and removal from Aircraft. While what Ejection Seats do may seem pretty obvious, the gravity of the reason for their existence is often overlooked. They are the very last chance for Aircrew Survival when everything else has gone wrong, they save lives. This was instilled into us from the very beginning, and it’s a fact not lost on any Armourer (and Aircrew I would imagine). Added to this is the focus on the need to get everything right during maintenance or fitting and removal.
To perhaps see how important these devices are one only has to look at the training required for an Armourer to be allowed to work on them..
- Firstly as above there’s 1-2 months’ worth of training at RAF Cosford during basic trade training..
- On arrival at a squadron you’re sent on what is often referred to as the ‘Q’ Course for the type of aircraft you’ll be working with. On the Tornado, this included a week long segment dedicated to the fitting and removal of the seats, and associated equipment.
- Then there’s the local authorisation, where after doing a 2 week long course with the Station’s Armament Training Cell you are finally given the ‘Auth’ to work on a particular aircraft type’s AAES. This has to be renewed every 2 years!
Parts 2 & 3 have to be redone every time you change aircraft type!
Even after all this training, in the Royal Air Force at least, you had to be at Technician level, and any technician working on these systems were 100% 1 on 1 supervised by an NCO, who would carry out ‘Vital Checks’ (Vitals) at certain stages of the maintenance procedure. Above that, there are further Independent Checks (or Indies) carried out by a Senior NCO who was completely independent from the maintenance.. i.e. they’d taken no part in it at any point.
Hopefully that gives a proper indication of how seriously maintenance of these systems is taken… you’re effectively responsible for the lives of the Aircrew should the worst happen!
So after my training, and an initial posting to a Missile Maintenance facility, I was posted to a small flying unit at Royal Air Force Coningsby, the F3 Operational Evaluation Unit.. which operated anything between 3 & 6 Tornado F3 Aircraft at any given time.
I stayed with this unit until I left the Royal Air Force some 10 years later. So you could say I got well acquainted with the MK10 seats, and the associated equipment the F3 was fitted with. From regular services, to unscheduled seat removal I think I pretty much covered it all..
A particular favourite, as I’m sure any Armourer will tell you is those ‘Ooops I ‘think’ I dropped something in the cockpit’ moments when the Aircrew return from a sortie at 4.30pm on a Friday, and the jet being needed for another sortie first thing on Monday*..
You wouldn’t believe how much of a contortionist an Armourer can become in those situations.. going headfirst into a cockpit, to get under the seats with utter determination to find the ‘lost’ article. Sometimes there’d be success, and others not.. the latter meaning very sad Armourers, as that means ‘seats out’ on a Friday night!
Taking the seats’ out is not a quick and easy option, in the earlier days we could just remove the ‘seat pan’ for searches but as Health and Safety rules became more strict, any removal of the seats would necessitate the removal of canopy, and the seat hoisted out in one piece by crane, or ‘cherry picker’. While physically less demanding, and easier overall to work on the seat it took longer due to all the additional Canopy checks afterward. On the whole though removing the seats from the Tornado, was a relatively straightforward procedure either way, it was the associated canopy components that were (for me at least) the most difficult and frustrating parts to work on. For those unaware, the Tornado took, a ‘belt and braces’ approach to canopy egress. In the first instance it would use rocket motors to blow off the entire cockpit canopy, and if that failed it would use Miniature Detonating Cord (MDC) to split open the canopy, and the seat would push right through. It was the components for the Canopy blow off that were a pain to fit and remove.. again some contortionist ability was required to get to these ‘out of the way’ components. The amount of times the air was filled with expletives shortly after hearing a tinkling sound as a nut you were trying to fit made a bid for freedom!!
*A bit of an admission here, while it’s easy to point fingers mockingly at aircrew dropping things in the cockpit.. I’ll have to admit that I’ve been in the situation where on nearing completion of a seat refit, I’ve dropped a nut, or split pin… and with a red face after a frantic search had to explain that the seats needed taking out again!
For the most part, the 10 years I worked with Tornados were thankfully uneventful with regards to the AAES.. we had an occasion where we had to look at the operation and maintenance procedures of certain ‘special trial fits’ of equipment on the seat to aid in the investigation as to how an Ejection Seat was accidentally fired inside the Hangar of our ‘sister’ unit at Boscombe down. It turned out it was a mistake/oversight made during maintenance that was the cause of the incident. This again hammered home, that despite their designed purpose is to save life, just how dangerous Ejection Seats could be if not handled correctly! There was also re-evaluation of how seats were maintained, and some practices were altered because of this.
Fortunately, there was only one incident where the seats were actually used on an aircraft that I had worked on, though it had been sometime prior that I had potentially carried out any maintenance on it, and the aircraft had recently been moved from our unit to 56 Squadron. ZE862 was involved in a mid-air collision with another F3 over the Sleaford area.. both Pilot and navigator ejected and survived, although the Navigator sustained severe injuries due to being pressed to the side of the cockpit by the spin of the aircraft. The AAES worked as it was supposed to in both Aircraft and saved the lives of 4 Aircrew.
One thing I can absolutely, positively say I didn’t enjoy about working with AAES was the ridiculous amount of paperwork required, I’m pretty certain entire forests used to shudder in fear when a seat change was scheduled! There were reams and reams of paperwork needed, with every little task carried out as part of a maintenance process requiring signature by the technician as being carried out, and then counter signing by the supervising NCO.