Guest Blog: Martin’s SeaMaster May Be The Reason The Space Shuttle Had No Ejection Seats


I enjoyed your story about your uncle Louie and the SeaMaster.  I have a related story to tell that shows how interconnected aviation can be.

In 1987 I joined NASA HQ in Washington, D.C., to help modify the Space Shuttle program after the Challenger accident. I was hired by what they called Code Q, the brand-new quality and safety organization. Before the accident, the safety related offices were all under the chief engineer and had no direct path to the Administrator and other senior leaders. Code Q was part of improving the agency’s oversight of its work.

To run the new agency, they hired a man named George Rodney. A tall, slim, quiet and patient man, George came from the Martin company where he had been one of its first true test pilots.

In World War II, George was a new engineer working in Martin’s design organization in Baltimore. They were having a terrible time finding test pilots who could give good feedback to the engineers. One day, one of his managers said, “Since we cannot find a military pilot who can speak engineer, maybe we can take an engineer and teach him to speak pilot.” So they asked George if he would like to be a test pilot. He said, “Sure.”

George went through military flight school and became the company test pilot. I did not think to ask him what kind of training he got in test flying, but I know he had to figure much of it out himself. Since it was his full-time job at a company that built airplanes, I know he was very focused on doing it well.

Flight test staff at Middle River in Baltimore, circa 1955. George Rodney is the tall man at far right. Louie Bertorelli is in the dark shirt in the middle of the last row.

Shortly after the war ended, he was asked to contribute his flying boat expertise to another military program.  They flew him out to Long Beach, California, where one Howard Hughes picked him up and took him to see the H-4 Hercules; the Spruce Goose. They spent a whole day together and were not done. Hughes took George to his studio where he watched the day’s output from one of his movies with George tagging along. He was most impressed when one of the stars sat next to him and chatted as they watched the clips. I am sure he told me the name, but all I remember is that she “was the most beautiful woman I have ever met!” Made quite an impression on young George.

George was the chief test pilot at Martin after the war and well remembered the SeaMaster. He had insisted that the airplane be equipped with ejection seats to allow crew escape in case of another failure, which was obviously a good idea. Unfortunately, in his mind, the cost and schedule impact of the change was a major reason the airplane was canceled. It was a huge setback to the company, and even though they survived, he felt very guilty.

This became relevant to me and others because the Shuttle also had no crew escape capability. Many people wanted to force the program to install something during this redesign phase, but George Rodney would not do it. He was certain that such a major change would have killed the program, and I agree. He did his best to get other crew survival elements added, but it’s very difficult to change such a sophisticated machine so late in the game.

I learned a lot from George and the many other great people I have been fortunate enough to know, including Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, Gene Cernan, and many others. George taught me to carefully consider the kinds of courage needed to run a high-risk enterprise. There were plenty of eager pilots to fly the SeaMaster without ejection seats, but he did what he thought was right at the time. I still think he did the right thing, even though he had second thoughts.

Life is full of challenges and lessons for all of us.

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  1. Indeed, with no risk at all nothing will get done.
    The question is how much risk are we willing to accept, and who makes that call.
    And of course part of the equation is what the consequences are, and who is liable when eventually something does go wrong.

  2. I have to add some additional information that to me is critical. Ejection seats save lives-period. In fact, the early Sea Master aircraft were equipped with ejection seats. It is good they did- 2nd prototype BuNo 138822, c/n XP-2 XP6M-1 Sea Master had a pitch control issue (runaway pitch) on 18 May 1956 above 21,000 feet altitude and the crew ejected. The wings were subject to such force they bent towards each other and nearly toughed before catastrophic failure. This was the first recorded successful 4-man ejection. That was something I remembered because I flew in the Senso position behind the pilot while in an ASW squadron in the Lockheed S-3A Viking, deployed on US Navy carriers. While I was attending flight training at NAS North Island in 1981, I remember John Young & John Crippen flying the first shuttle cleared for space, the Columbia, in April 1981. Their spacecraft, along with the testing version Enterprise were equipped with Lockheed SR-1 variant ejection seats, same type found the SR-71, U-2, etc. Later, the seats in the shuttle were disarmed because of the much larger crew being carried and no provision for additional seats. My aircraft, the S-3A had a poor survival rate when I was flying, with no successful 4-man ejections recorded- prior record showed that at least one, if not more, would die during ejection, usually due to the low altitude in which we operated. Until the summer of 1982 that is. My crew and myself normally flew the dawn patrol, the first flight of the day. On this particular day I was bumped from the crew so they could fly a short hop into Italy to drop off a passenger. Up front, the pilot was the CAG-6 (Commander Air Group) captain, an A-7E Corsair II pilot, who is in charge of all the carrier’s squadrons. The copilot was our Operations Officer who was a very skilled pilot. In the back behind the pilot and copilot, in my seat was the passenger, an A-6E Intruder crewman and in the TACCO seat across from the Senso seat was our Commanding Officer- he had already ejected once from an S-3A at NAS North Island when they also had runaway pitch trim, with less than 4 crewmen on board. During that fateful day in 1982 on the USS Independence, they manned the plane, steered onto the catapult and went through the final checks, advancing the engines to full power. They signaled all set, and the flight director signaled the crew and motioned to launch the jet. The plane did not initially move and there was a lot more steam than normal coming out of the catapult track. Then the hold back fitting parted (is supposed to when the right power & pressure is generated by the catapult) and the plane started to move- slowly. There was a steam valve failure of some type and the catapult initiated the launch even though there was not enough pressure to do so. The plane was moving down the deck but much slower than necessary and while it would most likely clear the end of the ship, it was not anywhere near flying speed. Realizing this extremis condition, the copilot immediately initiated ejection and all 4 seats clear the aircraft while the plane was still moving down the catapult track, with smoke coming out of all four holes in the canopy. This is all caught on the PLAT camera and a short clip is on YouTube (see the link below at time stamp 0:56). The camera sees this and then swings to the left and up to capture 3 of the 4 men in full chutes descending off the port beam. The 4th man, the pilot, had released his harness as soon as he had a full chute and fell 80-100 feet to the water- luckily, he survived, although bruised. All 4 men were rescued by the plane guard SH-3H helicopter flying a Starboard D pattern off the starboard side and they (4 crewmen) all walked of the helicopter when it landed on deck. That was the first time 4 men ejected and lived from an operational S-3A Viking. So, having away out it is much better than riding it in if given the choice. Incidentally, the Martin Sea Master had proven itself in the capable testing phase, overcoming most hurdles but did not survive the budget constraints of the Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s. There it saw fierce competition as a strategic nuclear delivery vehicle up against carrier strike groups and the newer ballistic missile submarines for funding. Ironic, the Special Operations Command is now very interested in developing a sea plane type aircraft that can carrier SPECWAR crews into harms’ way fast and over long distance and are studying the Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 STOL sea plane for knowledge and capabilities to apply to a US aircraft, potentially a short-term fix is the Lockheed C-130J fitted with pontoons.

    aircraft mishap montage 6 – YouTube

    • “In fact, the early Sea Master aircraft were equipped with ejection seats.”

      Just to be clear, this is incorrect. You’re confusing the two accidents.

      “The wings were subject to such force they bent towards each other and nearly toughed before catastrophic failure.”

      This is what occurred in the first SeaMaster crash in December, 1955. It was “not* equipped with ejection seats. The subsequent test article was and crew escaped after loss of pitch control caused a breakup in November, 1956. See the original blog for the details.

  3. “Martin’s SeaMaster May Be The Reason The Space Shuttle Had No Ejection Seats”

    No, he had nothing to do with it, NASA publicly said this was impossible a month before he got there.

    George A. Rodney, was named head new Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance at NASA in JULY 1986.

    NASA testified to Congressional committee on the accident on JUNE 10-25, 1986 and explained to Congress that their recommended crew escape was not possible with the current orbiter.

    Crew Escape was mentioned 58 times in Vol. 1 of the testimony, and NASA explains at least four time to Congressmen that they have looked at crew escape mechanisms since day 1 of the program and none were ever considered feasible to offer survivability for most areas of the flight envelope. This was well known for decades, and NASA explained their mitigation was to improve the booster safety factor, which obviously was not a good choice.

    One of many explanations they provided is quoted below:

    “Crew escape systems-we reviewed the history of the crew escape systems from the inception of the RFP back in the early 1970’s through 1983, and there are very many varieties of crew escape, including augmenting the basic shuttle to allow it to perform a recovery-type operation and allow it to land on a runway, from ejection seats to escape pods, to situations where a group of crewmen might bail out of an opening in the cabin during glided flight before impact. During that review, we found that these systems were all reviewed numerous times throughout the history of the shuttle program; and because of what at that time was considered to be limited utility-and what I mean by that is that the systems that were envisioned to be put in place would not cover an adequate number of the envisioned scenarios that might happen, such as 51-L-it was not found to be a usable system; the technical complexity; the ability to build such a system and ability to monitor the impending failures and execute the escape system in time to make it useful; and cost and schedule and performance impacts, performance impacts being primarily payload-to-orbit-no system was implemented.”

  4. Believe it or not, the issue did not go away with this testimony. I was present for numerous discussions through the highest levels of the agency to revisit this over and over again. Yes, installing a crew escape system into flying vehicles would have been an enormous impact, costing billions, but it was not impossible. In addition to the cost, other performance parameters would have been hit, including upmass (payload) and especially crew size. These penalties were enormous, but so too was the potential for another lost crew. So when the probabilistic risk assessment suggested one in 77 flights would cause a loss of crew (including failures during subsonic entry like loss of control), the idea of crew escape was renewed. If you were there with me, George, Arnie Aldrich, and others, you would know that.

    • You’re right, I was not there.
      But again, there’s thousands of pages of testimony and docs from the Presidential Commission and the Congressional one, all done long before you or George got there, showing there was never any feasible way to have a crew escape on the ascent, plus the Congressional hearing has many questions and answers from congressmen to NASA officials where, over and over, NASA officials are explaining to congressmen why their Recommendation #7 for a crew escape module is impossible.

      “Many people wanted to force the program to install something during this redesign phase”
      Who were these people?, because again, before you and George got there lots of congressmen pressed NASA on why NASA was saying that they could not implement recommendation #7, and the congressmen seemed to accept NASA’s explanation.
      NASA said that their repeated analysis before you and George arrived showed it was not possible to accomplish a crew escape in most phases of the assent with the current orbiter design, and that that decisions were built in to the design that could not be un-done. And oddly enough, NASA leadership said Arnie Aldrich was the one specifically who had been working on the current re-re-re-confirmation of this fact, again before you all had got there. So maybe he re-reviewed it with you when you arrived

      If you think a then-65 yr old lifetime government contractor once-upon-a-time test pilot who joined NASA’s later on is the program’s savior for having meetings to re-re-rediscuss something that everyone knew was impossible for 20 years, and came to the conclusion that it was still impossible, well then who am I to question your perceptions. You were there and know what those times were like.

      Likewise claiming credit for bringing the program back to flight were Winston Goodrich’s “Pole to Nowhere” team in Houston who spent tens of millions on an elaborate farce of setting the autopilot, have 7 people haul their 65lb parachute and scooching up to the escape hatch, then casually kneel so you can fit, and slide down a 9ft pole into a gentle 250mph breeze to parachute safely to the Atlantic. Like a crew escape module, this whole concept was just window dressing, but no one who might have to use it took it seriously. In his 2006 memoir, Riding Rockets, (great book, BTW, highly recommend it) astronaut Mike Mullane recalled, “Many of us placed the slide-pole bailout procedures in the same category as the pre-Challenger contingency-abort procedures—busywork while dying.”

  5. One of the aspects of the Challenger disaster and NASA was that NASA actively promoted the idea that none of the crew could have survived the initial explosion.
    I found that strange at the time — if a shuttle is designed to re-enter earth’s orbit at the speed it did, it must be very strong.
    Later it was confirmed that the crew were strapped in their seats and probably alive until they hit the water.
    My confidence in NASA’s commitment to truth fell.

  6. The thing that a career in aerospace should instill, first and foremost, is a profound sense of humility. Arguments go on for years about what is feasible and what is not, what is safe enough and what is foolish. Arguments in front of Congress are created to get through the moment without being overtly dishonest. Would you really want Congress to design anything you were going to ride in? Yes, the crew was not impressed with the escape pole system, but it did have some utility. Many people who rode ejection seats for a living (including me) had serious doubts about their survivability, but we would have used them if needed. Likewise, Mike Mullane would have used the pole if necessary. There were many potential failures that could have led to its use, the most common being some failure that precluded getting to a landable runway. Since landing “off field” would certainly have been fatal, the bailout was a much preferred option. Again, I wish all of the Monday Morning quarterbacks had enough humility to appreciate how hard this really is and stop condemning our decisions with only 5% of the information we had.