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Ejection at Mach 2.6 
by: Ron Kraan (original article by Alan Dawes)

Following article appeared for the first time in Air Forces Monthly march 2000. It has been altered for use on this website and published with kind permission of Key Publishing Ltd.

Record Breaking
Now a senior test pilot for the Sokol Aircraft building plant, Alexander Konovalov wrote history in august 1981. Not known to the Western World until 1999, he is the only* pilot who survived an ejection at Mach 2.6 at an altitude of 59,055 feet.

*after the article was published in march 2000, a story surfaced about an SR-71 crew surviving an ejection at an higher altitude and greater speed. This has not been confirmed by official sources.

Routine Flight
At the time, Alexander Konovalov was a new graduate of the Russian Test Pilot School. After having served as a pilot in the Soviet Airforce, he started flying for GAZ 21 (State Aircraft Plant 21) at Gorki. These days GAZ 21 has been renamed Sokol and Gorki is known as Nizhny Novgorod. Starting out as any other day at the Sormovo airfield for Alexander, he was to conduct an engine-related air test of a MiG-25R Foxbat-B reconnaissance fighter. The air test involved an acceleration check from Mach 2.4 to Mach 2.7 at more then 59,000 feet. The Foxbat was going to make his second flight after a major overhaul.

After completing his pre-flight checks he lined up on the long runway of Sormovo. As he selected afterburner the big and heavy jet started his way to the end of the runway. After a normal take-off and climb-out, Konovalov rehearsed the test program in his mind and settled down for another routine flight into the exclusive world of Mach 2.5+. Having reached his briefed altitude of 18.000 m he established his speed at Mach 2.4 before commencing the tasked acceleration run up to Mach 2.7. While accelerating he reached an altitude of 18.600 m when he suddenly heard a thud from the left side of his Foxbat. At the same time a red warning light flashed.

The sudden port engine failure caused the aircraft to tumble uncontrollably through the skies.
Konovalov was forced against the right side of the cockpit and his vision was reduced to a gray blur. He was not able to gain control of the aircraft and he realized he only had milliseconds to abandon it. Due to the giant forces on the airframe, the Foxbat started to break up. Konovalov struggled against the g-force and managed to squeeze and pull one of the actuating handles of his KM-1M ejection seat. Blasted out of the pressurised cockpit into the near vacuum of the upper stratosphere, making him the first pilot in history to survive an ejection at well over twice the speed of sound. The entire sequence of events did not take more than three seconds from explosion to ejection. 

The KM-1M ejection seat was only shortly before Konovalov’s escape cleared for speeds greater than Mach 1.8. The two red handles between the legs of the pilot can be pulled together or individually to initiate the ejection sequence. The pilots legs are pulled towards the seat and arm protectors come down both sides. Further protection comes from the two-stage seat firing mechanism. This limits the short duration g-force on ejection to no more than 20G acting from head to the bas of the spine. The seat however, is not equipped with a frontal deflector plate, as seen on the later Zvezda K-36, and gives no protection to the enormous windblast.

Another factor contributing to his survival in the extreme conditions was his KKO-5 (Komplekt kislorodnovo Oborudovaniya 5) assembly. This oxygen equipment assembly consist of a Gsh-6 (Germoshlem 6) pressure helmet and a VKK-6 (Vysotno-Kopensiruyushchi Kosyum) partial pressure suit with special gloves and boots. 

The tubes and pipe-work of the VKK suit are designed to squeeze the body and limbs to give counter pressure. The tubular exo-skeleton and internal bladders of the VKK-6 pressure suit inflated instantaneously with nitrogen as soon as the canopy is blown off in the initial ejection sequence. Without protection of his suit and pressure helmet, Konovalovs lungs filled with air at cockpit pressure, would have expanded three or four times their original volume. (Boyle’s law: at constant temperature, the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure)
This would have been fatal within seconds and the ejection altitude was also very close to the so-called Armstrongs Line. The blood of an unprotected human would boil at body temperature.

The visor on the GSh-6 is electrically heated to keep it from fogging. It snaps down tightly onto a gasket surrounding the faceplate opening. The locking neck-ring with rubber gasket (two variants - one, a latex very light rubber, and the second, a much more rigid gray rubber for higher altitude flights) is an integral part of the GSh-6 as it marries up with the altitude compensation suit to provide the complete pressure package. The helmet does not have integrated communications, but it does have a T-shaped trench on the inside that marries up with the cloth insert helmet. This helmet has a leather encased foam "T" that fits into the grooves on the inside of the helmet shell. This cloth helmet has the integrated communications package - two headphones and a boom microphone on the right side. The headphones are covered with soft lambskin

Free Fall
After ejection, the seat is retarded by the primary drogue chute to a speed permitting the deployment of the secondary chute. The latter process is designed to occur after 1.5 seconds and caters for ejections up to the original permitted maximum speed of 1,200 kph. It is likely that the secondary drogue chute operated faultlessly and remained intact on deployment. Konovalov faced a free-fall descent of around 15,000 m before the pre-set seat separation and main parachute deployment would occur. The free-fall lasted some three minutes.

At the designated height the barometric seat separation mechanism operated without a hitch. As the seat fell away, the parachute canopy cracke open and he was finally able to unlock the visor of his Gsh-6. After landing in a ploughed field, he stood up after a few seconds and bowed over to his parachute and said :”Thank you”. 

Test pilot career
Within a month after his extraordinary experience, Konovalov was back in the cockpit and resumed his career as a test pilot. Working at Nizhny Novgorod and in countries as diverse as Vietnam and Syria to perform post-delivery tests.

Thanks to Major Graig Martelle for the VKK-6 and Gsh-6 pictures and some additional info.


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