The US Airforce Used To Use Live Bears To Test Ejector Seats On Aircraft

A bear and an ejection capsule. Image credit: Susan Kehoe/, Gary Danvers Collection/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), IFLScience

Crash test dummies were invented in 1949, which makes it all the more surprising that in the 1950s the US Air Force was testing ejector seats on its aircraft by strapping live bears into the chairs.

In 1950, the nuclear bomb-carrying Convair B-58 Hustler was built. It was the first operational bomber capable of Mach 2 flight (traveling twice the speed of sound). While cool if you want to go somewhere fast, it wasn't so great if you didn't want that place to be the ground. While the technology was an extraordinary improvement, moving at such speeds meant that pilots could no longer eject from their aircraft safely, and so a new system had to be designed.

The idea it came up with had two stages. First, pulling a pre-ejection handle would tuck in the pilot's legs, then encase them in a capsule. A second lever was then pulled that would fire the pilot and capsule into the air, before deploying a parachute. The capsule, which contained food and water supplies for the pilot, would then slowly descend to the ground, or onto the water where it would float, awaiting rescue.

As you'd imagine, the capsule wasn't approved immediately and had to go through testing – on the unemployed and bears (who you could also argue were unemployed).

Testing on the ground took place on American citizens recruited from the unemployment lines, Gizmodo reports, before further tests were conducted on American black bears, Himalayan brown bears, and chimpanzees. The idea was that the animals would simulate the weight and size of a human pilot. Rather than using crash test dummies to do this, they would simply drug up a bear and strap it into an ejector seat.

The bears made it through to the final testing phase, where they were to be ejected while the aircraft was in flight. 

The bears and chimpanzees were used to learn of potential faults in the design of the capsule. As you can hear in the video above, faults in how the seats shook upon rejection would be discovered through finding fractures of the bears' bones. The capsule was then tweaked and tested again on the animals until finally a capsule was designed that was safe for human pilots.

The bears suffered a variety of injuries during the tests, which launched at different altitudes and speeds. Several suffered broken bones and other wounds, though all of them survived long enough to be euthanized at a later date. After which, they were dissected.

The bomber was retired less than a decade later.

 This Week in IFLScience

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