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Ejection carries its own danger for pilots

F-15 fighter jets were stationed at Barnes Air National Guard base in Westfield.

The Boston Globe

F-15 fighter jets were stationed at Barnes Air National Guard base in Westfield.

As rescuers combed the woods of western Virginia Thursday for the Massachusetts Air National Guard pilot whose F-15 Eagle plummeted into a hillside, many had been holding out hope that the pilot was able to get free from the plane before it crashed.

Those hopes were dashed late Thursday when Colonel James Keefe, commander of the 104th Fighter Wing in Westfield, Mass., announced that officials had confirmed the pilot had died.

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It was not immediately clear if the pilot was able to eject from the plane or not. The pilot’s name was being withheld pending notification of family members, Keefe said in a statement.

Ejection, a potentially life-saving option during an in-flight emergency, carries its own set of dangers. And even if investigators are able to determine that the pilot was extricated from the doomed jet, there are many other crucial factors to consider.

Officials with the pilot’s Westfield-based unit, who said they could not comment specifically about this incident, said the circumstances of ejection generally depend on how long a pilot has to prepare for the release, how fast the plane is traveling, and at what altitude.

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When pilots eject from a plane, they carry personal survival packages, according to Master Sergeant Timothy Mutti of the 104th Fighter Wing. Those kits can include food, water, mirrors, a compass, a raft, and signal equipment, including flares and radio gear.

However, it’s not certain that a pilot would be able to hold onto the package, even after a safe ejection. Mutti said pilots are trained to ditch their survival supplies, if necessary, to avoid hazards such as trees, power lines, and bodies of water.

Furthermore, the western Virginia terrain might render the contact radio useless, according to Major Matt Mutti, who is Timothy Mutti’s brother and acts as a spokesman for the 104th.

Officials have said that if the pilot ejected at an altitude as high as 40,000 feet, he could have drifted as far as a mile for every 1,000 feet on the way to the ground.

The altitude of the plane at the time of ejection — activated by pulling two levers on either side of the pilot’s seat — makes a major difference in how the process plays out, Timothy Mutti said.

Pilots ejecting while flying above 15,000 feet will stay in their seats and keep their masks and oxygen bottles, which make it possible to breathe in the thin air. A small parachute will slow the fall until the pilot reaches a point where it is possible to safely separate from the seat and activate the main canopy.

Pilots traveling below 15,000 feet follow a different ejection process. At speeds below 288 miles per hour, pilots will separate from the seat immediately and open their main parachutes. At higher speeds, they’ll first use a smaller parachute to slow themselves down.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this article. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.
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