It would appear no one was more surprised than the pilot when he and a back-seat “observer” ejected from the MiG-23 they were flying at a Michigan airshow Aug. 13. In the preliminary report on the incident, the NTSB says pilot and aircraft owner Dan Filer did not order the ejection but the back-seater might have. “The pilot reported that he was not ready to eject and was still troubleshooting the problem and maneuvering the airplane toward runway 27 at YIP when his ejection seat fired, and he was out of the airplane,” the report said. “He stated that if either occupant pulls the ejection handle, both seats ejected.”

The observer told investigators he believed he and the pilot “needed to get out” after discussing the issue, but he’s not absolutely certain he commenced the ejection. “When asked if he had pulled the ejection seat handles, he stated that he could not specifically remember but thinks that he would have pulled them,” the report says. The Cold War Soviet swing wing fighter was part of the closing act of the Thunder Over Michigan airshow at Willow Run Airport and was setting up for a second pass over the runway when the ejection occurred. The aircraft ended up on the lawn beside an apartment building in Belleville, Michigan, and no one on the ground was injured. Both occupants of the plane ended up in a lake with unspecified but non-life-threatening injuries and were quickly rescued.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Most interesting. I’d like to know the backseater’s credentials. I’m thinking the PIC might not be too happy about that. Nothing looked urgent from the video. Would also like to know what “the problem” was…

    I was watching some stuff about the Kara Hultgreen crash recently (her name was vaguely familiar but I didn’t remember her story specifically), and I believe it was the backseater who initiated that ejection. Too late for her, but saved his own life (barely).

    • What credentials are needed?

      As a 22 year old pup in the US Navy I qualified for air crew status. Was not much. A Dilbert dunker. Pressure chamber. One simulated ejection seat deployment. Got a couple of rides in the back seat of a TA-4 Skyhawk.

      Looking back on it, I could see someone panicking for no reason at all and pulling the ejection seat handle. There was “stuff” all around me that I had no idea as to what it was. Or did. I remember one pilot telling me to stop bumping the control stick.

      • You know, like was it a reporter from the local news station, or was it a guy with 5,000hrs jet time? Was it a panicked civilian (you’d assume anyone getting a ride in that aircraft would know SOMETHING about flying), or someone who’d be qualified to make an eject decision (as a PIC).

        Those are bad enough as it it (on your back, etc.), but if you go w/o warning, wow.

      • Me too. As an FAA controller , got invited to goride with the VF126 Squadron at Miramar, TA4s. I do remember the ejection seat briefing and specifically that little handle behind your head. I believe it disarmed the seat until ready to fly. My pilot pointed to it, showed me how to pull it out and turn it upright. He said if you hear me say “headknocker up, do it now. Because if I eject us any time after that and you haven’t done so, that will rip you spine right out of you body!” Got my attention and I definitely got that head knocker up. And the rear seat ejected first. If the front went out first, its rockets would cook the backseat guy.

        • I remember in the airforce got a Machi ride, the pilot briefing went like “if we have an issue at take off I will say Eject, Eject, Eject but you may only hear the first 2 as I will be on my way”

          • Exactly the same speech I got as a controller on a FAM ride in an F4. The pilot, who was a Major said, if I say, Eject, Eject, Eject, and you say, what? You will be talking to your self.

    • In the Hultgreen incident, there is a clear instruction from someone aboard ship (I assume the LSO) saying “Eject Eject Eject” as the Tomcat rolls into the dead engine. I don’t know what was required after that, but the plane was very close to the water when the ejection sequence commenced.

    • I agree with you Mike, Having ejected due to complete engine failure years ago (F-4) the communication between the front/rear seats is paramount. However, this also goes back to thoroughly briefing any passengers you fly.

      Nowadays I fly somewhat slower birds with the CAF and ensure a detailed safety brief is mandatory. As with all commands, or crew coordination, they are given in 3….as previously stated in other comments eject, eject, eject, etc……….no doubt in my mind the rear seat passenger panicked and pulled the curtain/handle.

      IF as posted the backseater had extensive military experience he/she should have known better in this case its the PIC call, not a ride-along.

  2. Clarification on the F-14 ejection. Backseater went as soon as the LSO(?) said “Eject!…”, if the source I watched/read was correct. My comment sounds like he waited too late. Very little time to think/react in that crash.

  3. I believe that the RIO in a F14 was a required crew member as some emergencies required actions from both seats. I wonder if the MIG23 was the same. If that was the case then I would assume that the GIB was trained and wouldn’t have commenced the ejection process without a good reason.

  4. It was either Ken Cordier (Phantom) or Gerald Coffee (Vigilante) – I can’t remember which – but when he called “Eject!”, he only got to “E…” and the guy was out. Phantom backseater survived, Vigilante didn’t (probably survived the ejection, just not the people whose hands he fell into).

    • My mom got a slight concussion and could never remember how it happened. The last thing she remembered was entering the building and she wasn’t that close to the door when found unconscious with a broken femur.

      Now, she has zero reason to lie, and all the docs and nurses say it’s normal. Maybe you should be less absolutist about things you actually do not know that much about?

  5. If the pilot was troubleshooting a problem, why would you continue to make your next low level high speed pass? Would you not pull up and out of the pattern to troubleshoot? There is a lot of “fishy” in these stories. p.s. Were these licensed ejection seats? Were they inspected, certified, FAA sanctioned? Please report on these issues as soon as possible.

    • From the article, the pilot said he was “maneuvering toward runway 27,” not that he was setting up for another high-speed pass. Generally if you’re having trouble with the airplane, pointing at a runway is a pretty solid choice.

      You don’t license ejection seats. You get them approved, and the main things you have to do to get them approved is to show that the seat you’re using is the one the manufacturer intended to be used in that plane, and prove that you’re properly maintaining it. You then show that you have a proper training procedure in place so that anyone who flies in it is properly educated on how to use it.

    • Your closing questions are moot; the seats worked as expected so why be concerned about whether they were certified/inspected?

  6. Not so.

    The rear seat would never be disabled when occupied. It would be insane to disable the method for egress by the back seat occupant in the advent the front seater was disabled or incapacitated. A loss of control by the pilot due to possible incapcitation would doom the rear seat occupant. A simple bird strike can do that.

    I flew in the as GIB in the F-4 Phantom on several ocassions. There was no provision to disable the rear seat ejection system other than leaving the pins in the seat. If the rear seat was occupied, it was armed and enabled.

    The operation of the command eject sequence was thoroughly briefed before each mission. A Pre-takeoff checklist item specified the Yellow and Black striped “T” handle above the left side of the panel was rotated 90 Degrees by the back seat occupant just before takeoff roll to enable the dual sequence egress for back seat first.

    The purpose of the command eject enable was to ensure that seats would exit the aircraft in sequence to prevent the danger of the front seat fireing in the face of the rear seat occupant. The reason it could was disabled when the rear seat was unoccupied was to save precious time and get the front seat out as soon as possible. If it was not enabled, each seat occupant would have to initiate egress, hopefully in the correct sequence.

    Upon touchdown, when the wheel were on the runway and a full stop was committed, the post-landing checklist returned the handle was to the non-sequenced default.

    • You are correct about never disabling an occupied ejection seat.
      However, your description of the “Command Selector Valve” is incorrect, it has nothing to do with sequencing. The sequence of ejection (at least in the Phantom) is ALWAYS rear seat first. The purpose of the selector valve is allow the rear seat occupant to command ejection for both seats. If the valve is left closed, and the rear seater pulls the ejection handle, only the rear seat is fired. If the valve is opened, then then both seats would fire. When the front seat handle is pulled, both seats go regardless, but always back seat first.
      This was always a briefing item, whether the PIC wanted the GIB to open the valve or leave closed. In my old squadron, we had them open the valve due to the possibility of the PIC being unable to reach the handle but wishing to command ejection.

  7. Placing of “observer” in quotes was a nice touch. Not my area of expertise, but I’d assume the waivers generally specify essential crew only during demonstration flights. Does that seat need to be filled?

  8. As a survivor of two live ejections from two A-7 Corsair II aircraft, I have to weigh in on some of these very speculative comments. #1 The Mig 23 is a very difficult a/c to fly…proven by many test pilot/fighter pilots. #2 The Russian seats were difficult to maintain due to non availability of cartridges and the seat rocket…therefore some pilots hesitant to fire them.
    #3 Like any two seat aircraft there is command ejection so the rear seat can eject both of them….rear seat goes out first ALWAYS. #4 This system in Mig23 required the canopies to blow off first…you can see that…this slows down the ejection sequence and usually means it is not NOT a zero/zero (zero altitude/zero airspeed) system. #5 lets wait to see what the pilot was actually doing/dealing with and what inter cockpit communications took place before any more conjecturing from the peanut gallery.

  9. I was blessed to fly the F-16C for nearly 25 years. In those years and nearly 4000 hours there were numerous situations that required immediate attention but only twice was ejection considered.
    I also (as did my squadron mates) flew our squadrons D model (2 seat) Jet giving other pilots ride alongs, incentive award winner flights, crew chief rides etc and in one squadron bros fortunate case, Tiger Woods.
    In all those missions I never heard once of a non pilot back seater initiating ejection. The preflight briefing was not only specific but emphasized the danger in ejections “out of the envelope” where survival was in question. Many times this briefing included the tongue in cheek quote “if you eject us without me knowing and we survive, I’ll kill you” In the case of this Flogger incident, it’s a blessing everyone involved was ok. I’ll bet the Fighter Pilot owner was considering the above solution afterward!:)

  10. Sounds like a backseater with a good self-preservation instinct. I wonder if he knew he’d eject them both, or if he was just going to say, “Send me a bill for the canopy” as he punched out, leaving the pilot to finish his “troubleshooting.”

    Things happen fast in a jet. You don’t have to dig very deep to find stories of a pilot’s ego hoping to pull off that last miracle, instead of punching out. That urge is probably compounded in this case by the pilot actually owning the hardware, instead of the government.

    Just watching the short clip, the plane looks slow to me. Frankly, this is the wrong kind of plane to have at that airport. The airport perimeters are too confined. If the pilot got turned around toward the runway and had to punch out, would the plane then slide into the crowd? If he can’t turn toward the airport, which subdivision will he sacrifice when the plane goes unguided?

    No good solutions here for that kind of flying. I’m waiting for a passenger to pull the CAPS on a Cirrus.

  11. It’s been a long time but, as I recall, we left the rear seat pins installed when carrying passengers. If I initiated ejection, the back seat would go first regardless of safties (unless the initiator hoses were disconnected). The pins just prevented a passenger from saying something like, “I wonder what happens if I pull this.”

  12. the only reason I said what I did earlier is

    “and was setting up for a second pass over the runway when the ejection occurred”.

    Just saying did he NOT communicate a problem to the “Airboss” or whoever was in control?

  13. Sad to say, We’ve now lost a great U.S. asset to a simple minded mistake.
    Did the backseater just get scared, and decided to eject ?
    It makes me wonder why he was allowed in the Mig to begin with…
    Usually more money then brains is the answer to that question.
    This same situation occurred about a year and a half ago, to the French, flying a Mirage fighter– the RICH, POLITICIAN (Who had absolutely NO BUSINESS in a high performance fighter) simply panicked, and ejected them both out of a perfectly good airplane! Oops
    Now that being said…Non-pilots should never have access to the controls.
    I speak out of experience–
    I have been fortunate to fly in the backseat of an Belarusian Air Force SU-30 Flanker, purchased by my boss (at the time) an experience I will never forget.
    He flew the Mig-29, as it was more of a “sports car”