Video of Canadian CF-18 pilot Brian Bews ejecting from his airplane moments before it strikes the ground and explodes into an orange and black fireball. He was making a low speed pass when he stalled the airplane, i.e., it stopped flying because it lacked minimum flying speed, and flipped over and dropped from the sky. I am sure the pilot had a lot of warning indicators going wild in his headset just before he ejected. It is normally a very bad idea to go low and slow close to the ground because there is not enough altitude to recover if the airplane stalls.
The pilot was very lucky he survived. Too many times the pilot waits too long before ejecting while trying to recover the airplane. Waiting too long usually means death. At some point, it becomes impossible to eject safely, even with a modern high tech zero zero ejection seat. During my days of flying the F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber for the USAF in the 1970s, the official rule was that if the airplane was out of control below 10,000 feet, eject. There is just not much time to correct a problem when traveling at high speeds. The Air Force knows from studying jet fighter accidents that waiting too long to eject has killed a lot of its fighter pilots.
When I was a student learning to fly the Phantom at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, in 1971 – 1972, an F-4 with two students in it crashed on the Gila Bend gunnery range during a practice bombing mission. The crew was learning how to dive bomb at a 45 degree dive angle. The student pilot got too steep during a dive bomb run. His dive angle was much greater than 45 degrees. The steeper the dive angle, the more altitude it takes to recover the airplane and avoid hitting the ground. The ranger safety officer and the flight leader saw that the student was too steep and warned the student pilot. A steep dive bomb run has less than 10 seconds from starting the dive until pull out, which is not much time while speeding toward the ground at 450 knots.
Somebody realized that the airplane was approaching the point of no return and yelled over the radio for the crew to eject. They did. The backseater ejected safely, but the frontseater hit the ground before his parachute opened. The F-4 front ejection seat fires 3/4 of a second after the backseat fires. That means the frontseater would have lived if he had ejected one second earlier.
Ejection seat technology has saved a lot of lives. The F-4 had a Martin Baker ejection seat with zero zero ejection capability. Zero zero means that a man sitting in the ejection seat fully strapped in would be able to successfully eject if the altitude were zero and the airspeed were zero. The F-4’s ejection seat with its rocket motor could blast a man 300 feet from the airplane. However, zero zero can be offset by the downward velocity of a stricken airplane. For example, if your airplane is descending at 500 knots, that is 845 a second. It the upward velocity of the ejection seat were 300 feet per second, the net downward velocity would be 545 feet per second. If the ejection shoots the pilot out horizontal, then there is no upward velocity to offset the downward velocity.
The ejection seat with its rocket motor is also a very dangerous device. Too many people have been killed and injured from accidental discharges of ejection seats on the ground during maintenance or accidents involving pilots and their seats. The F-4 ejection seat had seven safety pins in it when not in use. All were designed to prevent the accidental firing of the seat. If a single safety pin were not removed, the seat would not fire. Each of the safety pins was connected by a nylon line to all of the other pins. Before getting into the cockpit, we had to check to make sure that six of the seven safety pins were removed and that the seventh pin on the top of the seat was inserted into its slot. We removed the seventh safety pin after sitting in the seat and strapping in, which involved two connections to the survival kit in the seat, one lap belt, two parachute / lap belt connections, and four leg restraints. Although I loved my ejection seat, I was also very much afraid of it.
See still photos of the crash. The black thing below and to the right of the pilot is the ejection seat after it separated from the pilot. See also Flying the F-4 and Dressed for the Aerial Office.