written by Todd DePastino

Airforce Pilot in the F-104’s Stanley C-1 Downward Firing Ejection Seat

Former USAF pilot Dick Westerhoff recently mentioned that when he flew the F-104 in the late 1950s, the ejection seat fired downward out the bottom of the aircraft. If you think that sounds like a bad idea, you’re right. It was.

Dick’s Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was the leading edge of jet propulsion, the first airplane to fly twice the speed of sound.

Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in the air

The F-104’s tremendous speed presented a problem for ejection. It flew too fast for pilots to clear the tail assembly if they were thrown out of the plane with standard upward-firing ejection seats. Older aircraft were easier to escape due to slower speeds, but the high velocities of the new airplanes required new ejection engineering.

Stanley Aviation provided a solution with the Stanley C-1 Ejection Seat. It fired downward, which at the time was the only way to save crews in emergency situations for aircraft like the F-104 and the B-47 bomber.

The seat had a series of complex mechanisms, including metal “spurs” on the heels of the pilot’s boots that slotted over steel balls at the foot rest (giving F-104 pilots the nickname “Cowboy”). The balls attached to cables that kept the pilot’s feet in place during the ejection sequence.

The sequence initiated by pulling a yellow handle. The seat moved downward slightly, then the ejection seat’s rockets would ignite. This would propel the seat and the pilot on a trajectory that would further distance them from the aircraft. Once a safe distance was achieved, the seat would deploy a parachute to slow down the descent of the pilot.

F-104 Ejector Seat Schematic

Courtesy ejectionsite.com

While downward-firing seats prevented collisions with the tail, they introduced a new set of problems. The whole ejection system was far more complex than traditional upward ejection seats. More moving parts meant more chances for malfunction and more time and expertise required for maintenance. It was also highly specialized and couldn’t be adapted to other aircraft.

Finally, a forceful downward ejection meant that surviving a low-altitude escape was almost impossible.

Twenty-one test pilots were killed using such ejection seats, including Korean War Ace Iven Carl “Kinch” Kincheloe Jr. Kinchloe was chosen for the NASA Space Program, but on July 26, 1958, he ejected at low altitude from an early model F-104 at Edwards Air Force Base. The catapulted seat fired him into the ground before his parachute could slow his decent.

Soviet aircraft like the Tupolev Tu-22 “Blinder” bomber also used downward-firing seats due to unique design challenges. In the West, the Soviets surprised observers with their advanced ejector seat technology, featuring an auto gyro system that could fire the seat clear of the ground in any direction. This innovation motivated Western engineers to upgrade their own seats.

Stanley Aviation eventually came out with the Lockheed C-2, which fired upward using more powerful rocket catapults. The era of the downward ejection seat came to a quiet end.

Watch the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum’s walk-through the upward ejection seat on a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter: