After speding a lifetime as an employee at the French company Dassault, it was time for a man to retire after his 64th birthday. As a moment like this must be celebrated in a proper way, his colleagues thought of offering him, as a retirement gift, a flight with the Rafale fighter jet.
Once everything was established and organized, on March 20th, the “young” pensioner came to the Saint-Dizier military base to receive his surprise gift which, we must admit, exceeds by far any baton and watch. And from here on the madness began … At the pre-flight medical exam the man was so nervous that his blood pressure was very high, mainly due to the emotions that suddenly overwhelmed him as soon as he realized what he was going to be involved in; it was the reason why the doctor recommended that during the flight his pilot should not perform maneuvers that would lead to high positive and negative G’s.
After the exam, he was „properly” equipped by ground technicians and taken to the plane. And because a fighter pilot will always be a fighter pilot, on take-off, he pulled up into a 47 degrees climb, completely forgetting the doctor’s recommendations, which generated a +4 G followed shortly by – 0.6 G, taking the inexperienced passenger completely by surprise. A few seconds later the ejection was triggered, which blew off the co-pilot-passenger from the plane. Without understanding very clearly what had happened the pilot initiated the emergency landing, expecting, contrary to his will, that at any time he would also be ejected from the plane; and this could have happened because the system is designed in such a way that if one of the pilots ejects, the procedure is automatically triggered for the second pilot, even if he has not initiated it. Fortunately for him the Martin Baker Mk. 16 ejection seat did nothing of the kind, as a result of some damage caused by the passenger’s ejection. The French pilot managed to bring the plane safely to the ground. Once on the ground nobody was allowed near the plane for the next 24 hours, as a safety measure in case the seat “decided” to continue the ejection sequence.
And then the investigation began … which established that a long series of errors and pressures of a social nature led to what happened. It all started with the idea of the gift; obviously no one thought to ask the one in question if he wanted to be involved in something like flying in a military jet. Realizing what was happening he accepted the situation although he was very reluctant. The man was stressed and this was indicated by a heart rate of 137-142 beats per minute. Next it was the ground technicians who failed to properly tighten the seat harness, and also no flight instructions were given to the passenger. The pilot entered the scene by executing a takeoff that led to positive G forces shortly followed by negative ones. Or the negative ones will lift you off your seat if the harnesses are not tightened enough. At this point the passenger, like any responsible man, started looking for something to hold on to. And he found it, in the form of the ejection seat handle … and off he went together with the seat and cupola, losing his helmet and oxygen mask in the process; the helmet had not been fitted properly on his head and he had not been told to put on his oxygen mask … so he didn’t!
Among the recommendations made to the French Air Force by the B.E.A. (Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile) in the report issued after the incident there was underlined the one establishing a ten day period between the medical visit and the actual flight, as specified in the existing flight procedures. In this particular case only a couple of hours had passed. And we are not talking about military personnel, but about civilians who are about to fly on military planes. I am mentioning this because the French Air Force regularly invite journalists and officials to fly, the purpose being to inform the public (in the case of journalists) and the taxpayer (in the case of officials) about the activities carried out. In short, transparency!
All is well when it ends well, for the 64-year-old man landed safely and suffered only minor injuries that did not require hospitalization, which is surprising considering the situation. The whole damage consisted in a Martin Baker Mk. 16 eject seat, a cupola and pyrotechnic charges missing from the inventory of the French Air Force.