Rafale Ride Leads To Inadvertent Ejection By Overstressed Passenger

A well-meaning gesture gone wrong exposed a previously undetected flaw in the Rafale's ejection system.
Credit: French Military

A ride in a French Air Force Rafale B didn’t go as planned when an overstressed back-seat passenger inadvertently ejected from the two-seat fighter, and the aircraft was saved only because of a previously undetected flaw that prevented the pilot’s ejection, a new French military report says.

The back-seat passenger on the March 2019 flight from Saint Dizier, France was a 64-year-old contractor responsible for the test activity of a French armaments company, according to the report published April 6 by the French military’s air accident investigation office. 

When the passenger arrived in Saint Dizier the evening before the flight, he was unaware that his colleagues had arranged a special, back-seat ride in the French Air Force’s most advanced fighter, the report says. 

His colleagues, who included a former French Air Force pilot, wanted to make the flight a surprise, but they didn’t count on the prospective passenger’s reaction. 

The passenger “never expressed a desire to carry out this type of flight and, in particular, on Rafale,” according to a translated copy of the French-language report. 

Because the gesture was meant as a surprise, the passenger was informed only hours before the flight, leaving little time for him to prepare. The passenger did not feel he could decline the gesture, bowing to the social pressure imposed by his colleagues, the report says. 

A required, preflight medical examination resulted in a recommendation by the doctor to limit any maneuver forces to less than 3gs. An office electronic system failure, however, prevented the doctor’s guidance from being relayed to the passenger or the pilot of the Rafale involved in the mishap, the report says. 

The hastily-arranged surprise also meant that the passenger had to hitch a ride on whatever flight was already arranged on that day, which was a routine patrol mission by three aircraft. Such missions include a standard climb immediately after takeoff with loads greater than 4.5gs, the report says.

The passenger appeared enthusiastic to the pilot as he climbed into his cockpit, but there were signs that he was overstressed. The passenger’s wristwatch recorded his heart beats per minute. The maximum heart rate for a man of his age is 156 beats per minute, according to the report. His was racing from 136 to 142 as he seated himself. 

Perhaps due to the stress, the passenger failed to properly buckle in. The back side of his shoulder strap allowed more motion than necessary, the report says. In addition, he didn’t fasten the right leg of his pressure suit, lower the helmet visor or snap the chin strap of his helmet. 

The passenger’s experience in the back seat of the Rafale would be brief. 

As the pilot rotated on takeoff, the Rafale rapidly developed aerodynamic loads over 4.5gs. Within about 10 sec. of rotation, the pilot leveled off quickly, causing the loads to invert to negative 0.63gs. The shocked passenger, whose loose shoulder straps may have allowed him to start floating upward, reached for a handle, which happened to be the mechanism that causes his seat to eject. 

Because the passenger had failed to lower his visor and fasten his chin strap, the exposure to the  200-kt. air flow outside the aircraft caused his helmet to fly off, the report says. Besides minor injuries to his face, the passenger landed safely by the runway after his parachute opened at around 2,000 ft. 

The passenger’s inadvertent ejection command could have been disastrous for the aircraft. The two-seat version of the Rafale allows the pilot to select between two options: “1” allows only a single seat to eject when one handle is pulled, and “2” commands both seats to eject when only one is pulled. The pilot had selected the “2” option for this flight, the report says, meaning the pilot’s seat was also supposed to eject. 

The ejection sequence proceeded normally, with the canopy of both seats shattering and the back seat firing. However, the explosive charge connected to the front seat never received a command to fire, the report says. As a result, the pilot remained on board the aircraft, albeit with a missing canopy and back seat. The pilot dumped fuel and returned to Saint Dizier to land, the report says. The aircraft was secured for 24 hr. until the front seat’s explosive charge could be disarmed. 

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


The incident underscores how dangerous the defense business is.....glad to hear all involved are safe.
Interesting way to find bugs in the aircraft's software...
Pretty much a complete failure of the ground crew and pilot to make sure the non-mil passenger was properly secured in the back seat.
Incredible! As a pilot that flew for 50+ years, in the US Air Force flying Piper Cub, T-28, T-33, and B-47 aircraft, in the Mass. Air National Guard flying, T-33. F-84, and F86H aircraft, and owning and flying a Cessna 182 aircraft in the civilian sector, I never bailed out of any of the aircraft I flew...but had some exciting experiences.... what a GREAT job the 'front-seat' pilot did... not only survive the event, but to have done to get himself and the aircraft back on the ground safely. I would like to have a brief telephone conversation with the pilot....Please help me do that. My telephone number is (206) 382-3643 here in Seattle, WA.
Sort of reminds me of some kids book, “Try To Find All The Screw Ups”.
There are just so many.
Fortunately the long series of incorrectness culminated in the front seat not being ejected. Supervisors on this flying unit should be severely reprimanded from top down for allowing a back seat civilian rider to not have been properly supervised while strapping in and connected and not to have been briefed on exactly what to expect on this flight. Getting the aircraft back on the ground takes no particularly great piloting skill, The engines and controls were working normally. Slowing to approach speed cuts airflow into the cockpit to a minimum. Get head down behind windscreen and land, The motivation is there despite the embarrassment of having to explain it all back in ops. This squadron and possibly all flying units at St Dizier should be prohibited from taking on back seaters unless they are fully qualified to be there and all should be briefed on how to perform their duties properly for others. Incredibly this is a 1950's type screwup in 2020 in a most modern aircraft.
It sounds like what is described as "the front seat never received a command to fire" is a software failure.

Are we to take this as an indication of the reliability level of the Rafale's life critical software? More reporting by AW would be greatly welcome on this topic.
This is hilarious! Imagine the look on the faces of the coworkers when they saw their buddy, whom they pressured into the flight, punch out right after rotation! “Well I guess he really didn’t want to go flying today!” How ironic that a malfunction after screw-up prevented a mishap ( i.e. smoking hole in the ground). Apparently three wrongs make right, sorta...