Paris Air Show

Martin-Baker: Saving Lives in the Family Way

 - June 15, 2015, 8:00 AM
Bang! Another successful canopy-smashing test of a Martin-Baker ejection seat. This one will be installed on the Textron AirLand Scorpion fighter-trainer.

A custom-made window blind in Andrew Martin’s office displays testimonies from 12 pilots who owe their lives to Martin-Baker ejection seats. Significantly, their photos include family members, whose grateful comments are also included.

It’s a good motivator for the company’s director of business development and marketing, although he hardly needs it. Martin-Baker has been in the business of saving lives for 68 years, and 7,477 aircrew have safely ejected on one of their seats. Today, there are 16,836 Martin-Baker seats installed in 53 different aircraft operated by 88 countries.

Andrew Martin is a grandson of company founder Sir James Martin. His cousin Robert is the engineering director. They are two of 12 directors or heads of department who report to the joint managing directors of the company, in what Andrew describes as a very flat management structure, designed to be responsive. Those joint managing directors are his father James and his uncle John, 72-year old twin brothers who are still actively leading the company.

Martin-Baker Aircraft (MBA, Hall 2b E158) is indeed a family firm, still privately held and with no plans to change that status, according to Andrew Martin. The company has been operating from the same rural site at Higher Denham, just outside London, since 1929, originally as Martin’s Aircraft Works building prototype fighters.

When his friend and test pilot Capt. Valentine Baker was killed flying one of the company’s aircraft in 1942, Sir James renamed the company Martin-Baker and resolved to develop an aircrew survival system. The Mk1 ejection seat was tested in 1946. Here at Paris, MBA is showing its latest seat, the Mk17.

The company employs 650 people in the UK, and another 140 in a U.S. subsidiary at Johnstown, Pennsylvania. There are also joint ventures in France and Italy.

“We are a very conservative management team,” Andrew Martin told AIN. “We re-invest in R&D to make sure that we retain control and ownership of all our intellectual property.” If some other companies making ejection seats had done the same, rather than rely on government-funded investment, they might have prospered more, he believes.

As things stand, Martin-Baker has a 53-percent share of the worldwide ejection seat market. UTC Aerospace Systems (formerly Goodrich) has 15 percent, and Russia’s Zvezda has 14 percent, according to the British company’s calculations. No other company has more than 5-percent market share.

F-35 Seat

Martin-Baker is providing the ejection seat for all three variants of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The US16E seat for the stealth fighter is a development of the Mk16 that MBA provides for the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Beechcraft T-6 Texan II and other aircraft.

In its US16T guise, the Mk16 was also retrofitted to the U.S. Air Force Northrop T-38C Talon fleet when it was upgraded, another American major contract for the British company. In India, the Mk16 has displaced the Zvezda K-36 ejection seat that was fitted to the prototypes of the HAL Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and HAL Sitara Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT).

A unique feature of the US16E is the trio of airbags that inflate in a two-stage process to protect the head and neck of the F-35 pilot, wearing the large helmet-mounted display, upon ejection. Also of note, the F-35B version of the Lightning II has an auto-eject mode. This is designed to function in the specific instance where the STOVL aircraft is in the hover, and the shaft-driven lift fan fails.

In that case, the jet is likely to pitch down sharply, quicker than the pilot can react to fire the seat manually. It will therefore fire automatically while the possibility of escape remains.

Earlier this month, the US16E achieved a significant milestone, when it received the Release Authorization Notice (RAN) Level VI flight clearance from Lockheed Martin. Thus, the F-35 seat is now fully qualified for unrestricted flight operations.

“We have been testing this seat and all its components progressively from 2004, with over 100 ejection tests to demonstrate the exacting F-35 physiological, accommodation, mass, environmental, integration, schedule and cost requirements,” Steve Roberts, the F-35 Lead for MBA, told AIN.

For the moment, US16E seats are still assembled at Higher Denham, but the work will eventually move across the Atlantic to Johnstown. The US16T seats for the T-38 retrofit were assembled at MBA’s 38,000-sq-ft American facility.

Dogfighting with UTC

Martin-Baker is currently in a dogfight with UTC Aerospace Systems over a possible very large retrofit program for USAF A-10s, B-1s, F-15s and F-16s. The ACES II seat produced by the American company is currently fitted to all of these aircraft. It is also fitted to the B-2, where it causes a big problem for maintainers because, unlike the MBA US16E, the seats are not modular, requiring the stealth bomber’s entire upper cockpit to be removed for servicing.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress added funding to last year’s defense budget for sustainment and safety improvements to the ACES II. At issue is whether these improvements effectively create a new ejection seat–at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

UTC Aerospace Systems has designated the improved seat the ACES 5, but says that it is 70-percent common with the ACES II. If the improvements make the ACES seat modular, and also enable the American product to challenge the US16E’s status as the only current seat that fully protects a pilot who ejects while wearing a helmet-mounted display, then Martin-Baker contends that a competition should be held.

“It would be a retrofit, rather than an upgrade,” Martin believes. The Air Force is committed to changing the B-2’s seats, but if it extends the program to the other fleets, that’s a lot of business.

“We’re used to competing and winning,” Andrew Martin told AIN. This is not mere bravado. Whereas there was no competition for those large USAF fleets when they were being built, the U.S. Navy did compete the Navy Aircrew Common Ejection Seat (NACES) for the F-14D Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet and T-45 Goshawk in 1985.

MBA won with a version of the Mk14, and is still building the NACES for new Super Hornets. The British company also beat its American rival in a competition to provide the ejection seat for the Korean T-50 supersonic jet trainer.

Recently, both teams competing for the secret U.S. Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) requirement have proposed Martin-Baker seats. And, adds Martin, “All the primes who will bid for the U.S. T-X requirement have selected us.”

In fact, Martin-Baker’s own design philosophy is “evolutionary, not revolutionary,” according to Martin. “An ejection seat is a highly-tuned piece of equipment. To change one part might require a requalification,” he added. That limits the potential for local suppliers. For instance, even when F-35 seat production moves to the U.S., the parachute will still be provided by Airborne Systems of the UK.

Primary Trainers

The F-35 notwithstanding, the growth market for MBA over the past 15 years has been primary trainers. The Mk10 and Mk 11 seats can be found in more than 50 countries on such aircraft as the Pilatus PC-7/PC-9/PC-21, the Korean KT-1 and newcomers such as the HAL HTT-40 and TAI Hurkus.

Then there is a new generation of counter-insurgency (COIN) aircraft being developed that need ejection seats. The Textron AirLand Scorpion on display here at Paris has an MBA seat, and so too does South Africa’s new ARLAC venture. Andrew Martin is also tracking the progress of Aero Vodochody’s L-39NG trainer/sport jet. “Previous L-39s had a Czech seat, but now they want the Mk16,” he said.

Martin is keen to get his company involved with these smaller, geographically diverse OEMs at an early stage of their developments. “That way, they can design-in an off-the-shelf seat solution to achieve the lowest cost,” he explained.

The Mk17 seat on display here in Paris is aimed squarely at such manufacturers. It is compact, weighs 38 kg (only half that of a Mk16) and costs in the region of $150,000. It can cater for pilots weighing from 56 kg to 123 kg, flying at between 60 and 300 knots.

Possible applications include the Grob G120TP basic trainer; the Air Tractor, another COIN aircraft; and the Blackshape series of Italian primary trainers. Then there are the fighters being designed by new entrants: the ATD-X in Japan; the KF-X in Korea; and the TFX I Turkey. They are all prospects for the Mk16, according to Martin.

And what of the future? Martin-Baker is keeping abreast of developments in wearable health-monitoring technology. Having already participated in development of a seat that can auto-eject, the company is mindful of the possibilities for saving the lives of pilots who have fallen unconscious.

In the shorter-term, however, it is looking forward to the next milestone: the 7,500th life saved. Martin hopes to mark that occasion with a ceremony that will bring together the latest escapee with the very first.

Remarkably, Jo Lancaster is still alive. He made the first-ever live ejection with an MBA seat in 1949, from the long-forgotten Armstrong Whitworth AW52 flying wing research aircraft. In those days, the elapsed time from pulling the seat handle to the parachute deploying was 30 seconds. Today, it’s less than one second.

​​Crashworthy Seats

Making crashworthy aircraft seats is a little-known sideline for Martin-Baker that accounts for about 10 percent of the turnover. The company has designed about 40 different seats that attenuate and/or absorb high-energy impacts. They cater for aircrew, rear crew and troops, and include armored versions.

The current product line includes seven designs for helicopters, and two for fixed-wing aircraft. Applications include the CH-53E, UH-60M, S-92, and EC145 helicopters, and the CN-235, C-295 and P-8 fixed-wing aircraft.