A bear sits in the ejection capsule of a B-58 after successfully returning to the ground. (U.S Air Force video …
The website has put together a summary of the role bears played in testing the supersonic Convair B-58 Hustler. Apparently, because Himalayan and American black bears are reasonably close in size to humans, they were deemed acceptable substitutes, after a team of humans died in an early ejection test.
So, while Chief Warrant Officer E.J. Murray became the first human to successfully eject from a B-58 at nonsupersonic speeds on Feb. 28, 1962, it was a 2-year-old, female black bear that made it into the history books for the first successful supersonic ejection from the aircraft. That occurred about a month later, on March 21.
The bear was ejected from the plane at 35,000 feet above Edwards Air Force Base at a speed of Mach 1.3. It took nearly eight minutes for the capsule containing the bear to reach the ground safely.
Io9 describes the ejection system: “In the new system, a pre-ejection handle yanked the pilot's legs in close and closed a scalloped shell that enclosed him while still allowing rudimentary control of the plane. The actual ejection handle sent the capsule up with a rocket burst, automatically deploying a parachute. The capsule was designed to float, and contained food and survival supplies.”
Statistically, the bears actually fared better than their human counterparts: While a team of humans died in an early ejection test of the B-58, no bears died during the later test runs. However, in an extremely unsettling twist, the bears were euthanized so their bodies could be examined after the ejection tests.
You can watch a lengthy U.S. Air Force video, which discusses the B-58 testing in great detail and includes shots of the bears and chimpanzees after their flights:
It seems unlikely that such measures would be used today. Bears and chimpanzees were undoubtedly subjected to a painful and terrifying process. Still, the report sheds light on a truly unusual bit of aviation history and the role animals have played in helping to advance science and technology.
- Living Nature