Last chance for life: Egress flight

The ACES II is a system designed to save an aircrew at a moment’s notice and is the last hope an aircrew has when it comes to surviving an unexpected failure.

An Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES II) from a B-1 is maintained in the egress shop at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Dec. 13, 2017. To ensure the system is ready at all times, egress technicians perform maintenance regularly, conducting a full diagnostic inspection of the system, checking for any broken components and swapping out any time-changeable items that have expired. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

The ACES II is a system designed to save an aircrew at a moment’s notice and is the last hope an aircrew has when it comes to surviving an unexpected failure.

A parachute is installed to an Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES II) on a B-1 at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Dec. 13, 2017. Each seat has a number of time-changeable items that expire if not swapped out. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

The ACES II is a system designed to save an aircrew at a moment’s notice and is the last hope an aircrew has when it comes to surviving an unexpected failure.

Airman Joseph Tower and Airman 1st Class Cody Oleson-Massa, 28th Maintenance Squadron egress technicians, inspect an Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES II) from a B-1 at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Dec. 13, 2017. The ACES II is a system designed to save an aircrew at a moment’s notice and is the last hope an aircrew has when it comes to surviving an unexpected failure. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald C. Knechtel)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Beads of sweat roll down the aviator’s cheek, his face plastered in a harsh red glow as warning lights strobe around him. The crew fights to handle the uncontrollable beast, but the pilot soon realizes he must make a daunting decision: abandon ship. With no hope of saving the unresponsive aircraft, he reaches down, grasps the two caution colored handles labeled “EJECT,” and yanks them upward. Explosions echo around the aircrew as they violently ascend from the tumbling bomber before gently falling back to earth.

The Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES II) is a system designed to save an aircrew at a moment’s notice. Otherwise known as the “last chance for life,” the seat is the last hope an aircrew has when it comes to surviving an unexpected failure. When the time comes, they must have complete faith in the system and the well-trained group of Airmen who maintain it.

“It’s all about preventative maintenance,” said Tech. Sgt. Keith Percy, a 28th Maintenance Squadron egress systems craftsman. “We have to be on top of it because we can’t test the system. Everything that we do has to be perfect – everything.”

The team of Airmen ensure this during an egress final inspection, which is required every 30 days. While conducting the inspection, the technicians perform a full diagnostic of the system, check for any broken components, and swap out any time changeable items that have expired to ensure the aircraft is good-to-go.

“On each seat, we have a number of time changeable items that will expire if not swapped out, such as explosives, bad actuators, load resters, survival kits, etc.,” said Tech. Sgt. Mathew Wagner, a 28th MXS egress systems craftsman.

When multiplied by a fleet of approximately 25 B-1s, the number gets pretty big. Aside from the explosive lines throughout the cockpit, the team of Airmen must inspect for any and all things that could cause a system failure, such as frayed parachutes, old or nonresponsive equipment, and corrosion. Then, after replacing the defective equipment, the Airmen need to ensure the ejection equipment is properly seated into the aircraft.

According to Wagner, egress is a massively important part of an aircraft’s operability. With no room for error, the team must be on their toes and hyperaware of their repairs at all times.

“We can't afford to make mistakes,” Wagner explained. “I’m not saying our maintenance is more important than everyone else’s, but where they can test their systems to ensure they did it correctly, we cannot.”

Because the ACES II is a one-and-done machine, egress technicians must put their heart and soul into maintaining this mechanism.

“I’ve experienced ejections in the past, and the first thing that goes through your head, the first thing you ask, is did they make it through,” Percy explained. “Job satisfaction comes from ensuring the pilots are safe and we did our jobs well, but I could go my whole career without another ejection happening.”

Although ejections are rarely seen, aircrews can rest easy knowing the egress teams' skill and dedication help ensure their safe return when met with a worst-case scenario.

“That’s why this section is always under the squadron’s microscope,” Wagner stated. “We are the last system in the aircraft that needs to work – the last line between life and death for the aircrew. It’s important the seat works properly so these aviators can come home to their families and fly another day.”