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Can pilots fly again after ejecting?

Why are pilots deemed unfit to fly after emergency ejection?

There are many instances where pilots need to eject out of the cockpit due to emergency situations, and after such an ejection from some modern aircraft, pilots are deemed unfit to fly airplanes for some years. Why is this done? What is the minimum number of years after which a pilot is deemed fit to fly again?

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asked Jun 2, 2015 at 6:34
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$begingroup$ Depends on the aircraft. Canadian F-18 pilots are allowed to eject once, I believe. After two they are no longer allowed to fly (afaik) — damage to the spine, as noted by @MikeFoxtrot, is the primary reason. $endgroup$

Jun 2, 2015 at 10:20
$begingroup$ thanx @BobJarvis $endgroup$
Jun 2, 2015 at 16:47

$begingroup$ Captain Udell ejected supersonically and my understanding is that he was still able to fly again after his ejection.… $endgroup$

Jun 2, 2015 at 21:24

$begingroup$ Air force pilots often fly aircraft worth millions, or billions, of dollars. I suspect that the automatic suspension gives them one more reason to stay in the aircraft. $endgroup$

Jun 3, 2015 at 0:03

$begingroup$ @Hal, I can tell you that the price of the aircraft is not part of the pilot’s decision making process when facing a life or death situation. $endgroup$

Sep 13, 2019 at 23:29

3 Answers 3

Sorted by: Reset to default

Ejection Seats are not a free ticket out. They are incredibly violent and rough on your body. This newspaper article has a more chilling quote from an interview:

About one in three will get a spinal facture, due to the force when the seat is ejected — the gravitational force is 14 to 16 times normal gravity and it might be applied at 200G per second. Bruising and abrasions are typical from the shock of the chute opening or the air blast. In the early days, there were cases where pilots would eject into very-high-speed air and it would whip their arms behind and break them, pop their shoulders out; same thing could happen to the legs. Source

Hence, it is very possible to get back pains and a host of other problems as a result of ejecting. Since these type of things are not that easily reversible, you’d rather take the safe path and remove then from the cockpit than put then back in a work environment that known is pretty hard on your body. Aircrew seem to agree:

“It was the most violent thing I’ve ever felt in my life,” says one of the B-1 crew members, whom the Air Force asked me to identify as “Captain IROC.” “I lost a full inch in height,” because his spine absorbed such tremendous G-forces. Source

Modern ejection seats are however increasingly intelligent and will gauge the ejection force applied to the conditions, cutting down the number of serious cases.

This paper discusses the symptoms of four individuals who crashed their jets in mid-air. The medical problems encountered with ejection can be classified as follows:

  • Injuries from the emergency that causes ejection—fire or collision.
  • Canopy jettison: burns from “MDC splatter” and cuts from fragmented plastic. For these reasons, aircrew are always advised to wear their visors down, to protect the face.
  • Firing of ejection gun: spinal injuries.
  • Entering airflow: wind blast may cause lung damage; seat tumbles at variable speed, which may be as high as 180 rpm. (All seats have a drogue parachute or deployable aerodynamic panels to prevent tumbling); flail injuries to extremities.
  • Parachute deployment: snatch injuries.
  • Landing: lower limb injuries.

How a US Air Force fighter landed itself after the pilot ejected

The story of the “Cornfield Bomber,” an aircraft that landed without a pilot, might not sound very impressive in today’s age of drones and increased automation. The narrative changes drastically when one key piece of information is added: this happened in 1970, after the pilot was forced to eject from a jet he had last control of.

The bizarre event, on February 2nd, 1970, to be precise, took place during a training sortie for the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron out of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Three pilots in F-106 Delta Darts took to the sky for a two-on-one combat training exercise. A fourth was a last-minute scratch from the flight schedule after an equipment issue on the runway, leaving instructor pilot Captain Tom Curtis flying solo against fellow instructor pilot, Major James Lowe, and 1st Lieutenant Gary Foust (at the sticks of the “Cornfield Bomber”). Regardless of the hierarchy, bragging rights were at stake.

“Of course, this was a big ego thing, who was the winner…” said Curtis, whose recollection of the day is available at

Curtis goes on to detail what led to Foust needing to eject from his aircraft:

“I figured I could handle Gary pretty easy, but I did not trust Jimmy. I figured he would probably break off and come after me. With this thought in mind, I came at them in full afterburner. I was doing 1.9 Mach when we passed.

I took them straight up at about 38,000 feet. We got into a vertical rolling scissors. I gave [Gary] a high-G rudder reversal. He tried to stay with me – that’s when he lost it. He got into a post-stall gyration… a very violent maneuver. His recovery attempt was unsuccessful and the aircraft stalled and went into a flat spin, which is usually unrecoverable.”

Lt. Foust started running through emergency recovery procedures by the book, but the jet did not respond and continued to spin and plummet to the Earth. Maj. Lowe instructed him to deploy his drag chute, but it only wrapped uselessly around the tail. Out of options, Foust was finally instructed to eject at 15,000 feet. No one could have predicted what happened next.

When Foust ejected, the Delta Dart first went nose down, but then recovered on its own and resumed the straight and level flight Foust had been trying to achieve for about 23,000 feet. Lowe watched Foust eject, and then witnessed the unmanned F-106 take things from there, improbably flying itself away. Unphased, Lowe still had time for humor, and quipped over the radio:

“Gary, you’d better get back in it!”

Of course, Foust had little choice but to watch, dumbfounded, as he floated safely to the ground in the mountains of Montana, to be later extracted by locals on snowmobiles.

“I had assumed it crashed,” he said years later in an interview at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (where the jet now sits). However, over fifty miles away as the crow (or Delta Dart) flies, the jet skidded on its belly to a safe landing in a field near a town called Big Sandy.

The high-performance interceptor hadn’t gone unnoticed on its approach through rural Montana. According to a 1978 article in the Mohawk Flyer (a local paper near Griffiss AFB in NY, where this particular jet had since been re-assigned), a local sheriff got in touch with the Air Force at Malmstrom and got instructions on how to throttle down the still-turning aircraft. The jet was melting the snow beneath it and still lurching slowly across the field. The understandably apprehensive sheriff decided to instead let the jet punch itself out and run out of fuel, which took another hour and 45 minutes.

cornfield bomber

Fortunately, bystanders had kept a safe distance from the unpredictable monstrosity that managed to crawl another 400 yards. The radar in its nosecone was still sweeping and would have been hazardous to anyone approaching the aircraft from the front, as well. When the dust (or snow) had settled, Foust’s wayward steed was no worse for the wear besides a gash in the belly. It was partially disassembled and transported by train to California, where it was repaired and eventually returned to service.

cornfield bomber

With the rise of the F-15, and as the Soviets began to focus more on inter-continental ballistic missiles over long-range bombers for nuclear deterrence, the F-106 was slowly phased out. Ironically, many were converted to the QF-106, an unmanned drone used for target practice. This bird, however, was not one of them. Tail number 58-0787 ended up as one of the jets at the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, the Air Force’s last F-106 squadron, at Griffis AFB. As fate would have it, Foust would be stationed there, along with his wingman the day of the incident, James Lowe, who was now his squadron commander. Lowe, who apparently has a delightfully twisted sense of humor, saw to it that Foust was paired back up with his old aircraft.

How did the “Cornfield Bomber” land itself?

An unmanned jet flying itself to a safe landing, away from a populated area, and almost completely unharmed, is improbable, to be sure. It was more than just dumb luck, however. As theorized by Peter Grier in his Air Force Magazine article, the force of the rockets from Foust’s ejection seat, as well as the shift in the aircraft’s center of gravity from a now missing pilot, corrected the spin and set the aircraft back to what it was naturally shaped to do, take advantage of lift and fly.

As it turns out, the attempted recovery procedures carried out by Foust before he bailed out were significant in saving the aircraft. One of those measures was to “trim” the aircraft to take-off settings, which happen to be very similar to those for landing. Trim refers to automated settings that free the pilot from having to maintain constant pressure on the controls to keep flight surfaces (flaps, ailerons, etc.) in the correct position for a given phase of flight (ascent, descent, maintain altitude, etc.)

“When Gary ejected, the aircraft was trimmed wings-level for about 175 knots (200 mph), a very nice glide setting,” Curtis said in his account.

Another element of the jet’s salvation, as noted by Grier, may have been a concept in aeronautics known as “ground effect.” In short, ground effect is a change in aerodynamics as an aircraft gets closer to the ground. Because of the way air interacts with the aircraft’s wings as it nears landing, drag is decreased and lift is increased, causing an aircraft to “float,” which is a very plausible explanation for such little damage sustained in this case.

A more thorough explanation is available here

Whether it was a pilot determined to save his plane, physics, some kind of divine intervention, or a combination of all three, the “Cornfield Bomber” remains one of the wildest stories in American aviation history that most people haven’t heard of. Foust remarked in his interview at the museum:

“I don’t know who named it that, or how it got that name. It should be the ‘Wheatfield Fighter.’ But it sounds a little catchier to be the ‘Cornfield Bomber…’”

“…I guess I’m part of a one-in-a-million occurrence. I don’t know that this has ever happened again, this whole scenario. But it is good to see the airplane again, and to know that it’s in the museum here and that this story will live on…”

Read more from Sandboxx News:

  • That time a Russian fighter shot down one of its own in a mock dogfight turned real
  • XP-79: The US fighter built to ram enemy bombers
  • Video of Marine Corps F-35 crash emerges after refueling mishap
  • The Russian Air Force is its own worst enemy
  • ‘Bazooka Charlie’ turned his WWII recon plane into a tank killer

Feature image: U.S. Air Force


Tory Rich is a Marine veteran, and now coaches football and wrestling, so he spends most of his time lecturing younger people about “back in the old days.” Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of kids to tell to get off his lawn deep in the woods of Vermont. Since he got out of the Marines in 2011, Tory got a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from UNLV. While he lived in Las Vegas he dabbled in powerlifting and learned just enough about mixed martial arts to get his butt kicked. View all posts

Tory Rich

Tory Rich is a Marine veteran, and now coaches football and wrestling, so he spends most of his time lecturing younger people about “back in the old days.” Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of kids to tell to get off his lawn deep in the woods of Vermont. Since he got out of the Marines in 2011, Tory got a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from UNLV. While he lived in Las Vegas he dabbled in powerlifting and learned just enough about mixed martial arts to get his butt kicked.

Reader Interactions


  1. snailmailtrucker says July 11, 2021 at 1:14 am

Who created a website with news articles that are Nearly Impossible to read because of the Redditt, Fakebook, Twitter ADS on the Left Column ?

I was just visiting the National Museum of the Air Force and missed this story. But I highly recommend the museum in Dayton, it is absolutely massive. Bring your walking shoes because I think my wife hit her 10,000 steps soley inside (pun intended).

TO Trim . . . who knew! Sounds plausible as to why it flew straight and level, and of course if it started descending it wouldn’t have been erratic, just a nice easy set down with ground effect. Amazing set of circumstances!

11 amazing facts about aircraft ejection seats

Blake Stilwell

Obviously, having to eject from a multi-million dollar aircraft of any kind is the last thing on a pilot’s bucket list (and is dangerous enough to actually be the last thing on the pilot’s bucket list). The truth is that, as in any military job fu…


Obviously, having to eject from a multi-million dollar aircraft of any kind is the last thing on a pilot’s bucket list (and is dangerous enough to actually be the last thing on the pilot’s bucket list). The truth is that, as in any military job function, things don’t always go as planned, even for the men and women fighting at a few thousand feet above the Earth.

The technology surrounding the ejection of any pilot is really incredible. After more than a century in the making, ejections can be made at supersonic speeds and at altitudes where there is little oxygen in the air. The canopy blows open, the air rushes in, and in one-tenth of a second, the pilot(s) are on their way to safety. The tech has come a long way since and the chances of a successful ejection are up from 50% in the 1940s. A lot happened in the meantime. Here are 11 things you may not have known before.

1. The first successful ejection was in 1910 and was initiated by bungee cord.

In 1916, one of the inventors of a type of parachute also invented an ejection seat powered by compressed air.

2. The German Luftwaffe perfected the ejection seat during WWII. The first combat ejection was in 1942.

The Focke-Wulf FW190 Würger testing ejection seat.

Two German companies, Heinkel and SAAB (of the automobile fame) were working on their own types of ejection seats. The pilot of the first ejection bailed out because his control surfaces iced over.

3. Some aircraft, like the supersonic F-111, used pods to eject the crews. The B-58 Hustler tested its ejection system by ejecting bears.

Lt. (j.g.) William Belden ejects from an A-4E Skyhawk on the deck of the USS Shangri-La in the western Pacific circa 29 July 1970.

Because parachutes need time to open, early zero-zero (zero altitude, zero airspeed) ejection seats used a kind of cannon to shoot the pilot out once they cleared the canopy. This put incredible forces on the pilot.

5. Before zero-zero seats, safe ejections required minimum altitudes and airspeeds.

A Royal Air Force pilot ejects from a Harrier at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan.

Modern zero-zero technology uses small rockets to propel the seat upward and a small explosive to open the parachute canopy, cutting the time needed for the chute to open and saving the forces on the pilot.

6. The most common reason ejections fail is aviators wait too long to eject.

A recent study found the survival rate for ejection was as high as 92%, but the remaining 8% is usually because the pilot waited until the last second to eject.

7. Seats in planes like the B-1 Bomber eject at different angles so they don’t collide.

A two-ship of B-1B Lancers assigned to the 28th Bomb Squadron, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, release chaff and flares while maneuvering over New Mexico during a training mission Feb. 24, 2010. Dyess celebrates the 25th anniversary of the first B-1B bomber arriving at the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)

The B-1B Lancer has a crew of four and their seats are designed so that the seats are positioned at different angles and different intervals to avoid mid-air collisions. The B-1A used a capsule for the crew.

8. Depending on altitude and airspeed, the seats accelerate upward between 12 and 20 Gs.

That’s just the upward thrust. Pilots have ejected in speeds exceeding 800 miles per hour (the speed of sound is 767.2 mph) and from altitudes as high as 57,000 feet.

9. Ejection seat manufacturer Martin-Baker gives a certificate, tie, and patch to aviators who join the «Martin-Baker Fan Club» by successfully ejecting.

The first pilot was a Royal Air Force airman who ejected over what was then Rhodesia in January 1957. Since then, over 5800 registered members have joined.

10. The interval between ejections in a two-seat plane like the F-14 Tomcat is about half a second.

The RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) goes first, then the pilot (Goose then Maverick, but in real life, Goose would probably survive.)

11. Ejection seats have saved more than 7,000 people.

Not Goose, of course. (Should have followed F-14 NATOPS boldface procedures. RIP, shipmate . . .)


Obviously, having to eject from a multi-million dollar aircraft of any kind is the last thing on a pilot’s bucket list (and is dangerous enough to actually be the last thing on the pilot’s bucket list). The truth is that, as in any military job fu…


Blake Stilwell

Blake Stilwell is a traveler and writer with degrees in design, television & film, journalism, public relations, international relations, and business administration. He is a former combat photographer with experience in politics, entertainment, development, nonprofit, military, and government. His career includes work in Business Insider, Fox News, ABC News, NBC, HBO, and the White House.

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