Our search for viable ejection systems presented a couple of challenges. First, no one wanted to touch this with a 10 foot pole, especially Martin Baker. After multiple attempts to persuade anyone to help us met with dead ends, I sent an email directly to Martin Baker. It must have reached the highest levels because within 20 minutes I received a phone call.
The person, very high in the organization, called and said he admired the challenge we were attempting. Admire is a strong word and I take it he didn’t throw it around lightly. However, the realities of modern business, especially one that employs thousands and is responsible for the safe escape of military airplanes all over the world, simply cannot accept the liability supporting a legacy airplane involves. Essentially, the lawyers stopped him.
I understood fully and soon realized that persuading them to help was useless. We’d have to go another way.
That led me from one person to another, all involved as US government support contractors in various projects, that require viable escape systems. I found a person who not only admired what we were doing, but jumped in with both feet offering to help. His knowledge and experience with escape systems covers a wide spectrum of aircraft and he is one of those people who ‘knows everyone.’ I am intentionally NOT mentioning names here, to protect them.
We located, procured, and shipped a viable ejection seat to St. Mary’s. I knew it would work, since it’s the exact same seat the U.S. Marine Corps used in our Harriers. The UK used Martin-Baker, the U.S. used Stencil. We had to modify one attachment bolt from the seat/airframe interface from metric to SAE. The Harrier is SAE. That modification required simply reaming out a fitting a very, very small amount to achieve a safe fit. Other than that, the seat slipped right in, slid down the rails and locked into place. Almost like it was made for it, because it was. I had and have extreme confidence that if the seat has to be employed, it will fire up the rails just as smoothly. Let’s hope we never find out…
With a viable seat, a viable engine and airframe, workable civilian radios, we needed the FAA to sign us off, so we called for an inspection.
A team of inspectors arrived from our FSDO to go over the whole airplane. They required that all the panels be off the airplane. The panels are all numbered. The highest number I saw was 211, although there may have been a couple we did not remove, but Christian, Rich, and Pete spent weeks, removing dozens of screws, to get the panels off. Some hadn’t been removed in years, but we had our marching orders.
When the FAA inspector team arrived, we had all the maintainers on hand to answer questions. We showed them our spares, our tools, our manuals and of course the airplane. We answered tons of questions, about how the systems worked and how we went about determining if they were safe for operation. (Airworthy has a specific meaning to the FAA).
One of the team actually had Harrier experience. He proclaimed the airplane in fantastic shape — better in fact than some he’d seen flying in the fleet!
After a couple of hours, climbing over the airplane, the senior inspector took a seat and broke open his “how to inspect” book. It looked like the New York phone book. We all thought he was searching for that one regulation we missed, but that was not the case at all. When we asked, if there was any more, he stated he was searching to find IF we were required to display the N-number. Since the airplane was historic, that requirement may be waived. As that didn’t matter to us in the least, he closed the book and said he’d be back in a few weeks to issue our papers and we’d be done. Except to do a current weight and balance and attach all the missing panels. We can’t fly with all those panels missing!!
Six months later, with all the panels attached – -with new screws — and a weight and balance calculated, we were finally ready to get airborne.
But that’s a story for another time… If we didn’t have cliffs, there wouldn’t be anywhere to hang, would there?