October 5, 2023 | Susan Napier-Sewell

How far away is death? Surprise Ejection On $70 Million Fighter Jet

With elements of a dark comedy, a surprise retirement celebration—a flight on a $70 million fighter jet—led to a very sudden ejection at 2,500 feet.

A 64-year-old French defense ambassador was retiring; to show their appreciation and well wishes on the occasion of his retirement, his employees planned quite a surprise—a flight in a $70 million Dassault Rafale B fighter jet.

Apparently the coworkers didn’t know their colleague as well as they imagined.

When the ambassador arrived at the Saint-Dizier airbase in northeastern France and realized what his “surprise” was, he felt extremely stressed. 

According to the aviation accident investigation report from the Paris-based BEA (Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis), the pensioner had “never expressed a desire to take part in a flight like this, and especially not in a Rafale.”

The report weighed in, “The need to keep the surprise until the moment of the flight had hugely risky consequences, especially as regards preparation for the flight.”

“This situation generated a feeling of stress for the passenger, and this was particularly felt during the ejection seat briefing, where he had to assimilate a large amount of information in a very short time.” 

[The flight had been authorized by the French Air Force staff at the request of the Defense Ministry, further applying pressure to the honoree, who was considered a VIP.]

“In addition, the stress of surprise has been magnified by the complete lack of military aviation experience.

“The passenger said he had a complete lack of knowledge of the aeronautical environment and its constraints, having never flown on a military aircraft.”

The flight’s 35-year-old captain had 2,000 flying hours, including 905 flying a Rafale. The captain stated that he usually had a military comrade in the back seat of the two-seater jet.

The report relayed that, “Faced with a fait accompli on the day of the flight, it was very difficult for him [the retiree] to refuse to participate in the flight.”

The retiree reacted by reaching for anything he could find to hold onto and accidentally pulled the ejector handle of the $70 million fighter jet!

Here is the timeline that led to more than one near-miss: 

  • 4 of the retiree’s colleagues arrived at the airbase, bringing along a professional photographer, and fixed a Go-Pro camera on their coworker’s helmet to film the afternoon flight.
  • The retiree expected a gradual ascent, but the plane climbed at 47 degrees, rather than the 10 to 15 degrees of a standard passenger plane.
  • The retiree reacted by reaching for anything he could find to hold onto and accidentally pulled the ejector handle.
  • He flew out at high speed. He lost his ill-fastened helmet prior to landing in a field.
  • A loud banging noise occurred simultaneously with the force of the ejection: The retiree’s unsecured mask and oxygen mask were torn from his face. 
  • The airborne retiree managed to use his parachute to land in a field, shocked, with minor injuries.
  • Analysis of the radio recordings revealed that the pilot was in control of the situation. Upon being informed that his passenger had ejected, the pilot recognized that the Rafele-B’s command ejection system is designed to simultaneously eject his seat as well as his passenger, and “remained calm following the loss of the rear seat and the canopy.”*

*Source for the Lesson Learned: Task & Purpose, “A technical glitch saved a French fighter pilot after a civilian passenger freaked out and ejected,” Haley Britzky, April 2020. 

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