The Visit to Martin Baker Ltd
August 2005 and August 2006
I visited both the airfield at Chalgrove and the HQ at Denham on the 11th August 2005.
(Left)This is the T-38 Talon cockpit that was used to to do the seat testing for the US16T seats for the NASA.
(Right) This is the horizontal rocket test chamber at Denham which allows for environmental testing of new rocket packs
(Left) A brand new Mk10S seat for the SAAB Grippen reaches the final stages of assembly.
(Right) Another Mk10S at an earlier stage of construction. There is no parachute container or back support fitted yet. The blue leg restraint and whit arm restraint straps are installed and the large blue tube at the back is part of the support stand for construction. This is where the main ejection gun will fit when the seat is finished.
(Below) Seat pans for various marks of seat including the 10's and 16's await their turn to be added to other components on the assembly line.
(Right) A brand new Mk 10S awaits delivery
I was invited back to Chalgrove in August 2006 to discuss a project with Martin Baker and was lucky enough to be allowed an hour long visit to the pyrotechnic production facility amongst other things.
I was of course not allowed to take a camera into this part of the plant. No, not for security or commercial reasons, but one of safety. The last thing anyone who is hand filling or processing explosive material wants is for a sudden flash to happen behind them. There is also the fact that the electronics in a modern camera could contain or create a static problem with catastrophic results.
The plant, like many other explosive handling places is divided up into many small "cells" or units, each with elaborate anti static measures at the entrance to each one. Many of the workers were wearing anti static slip over shoes to minimise the effect and also it was noticeably clean and dust free.
One cell was dedicated to the machining of the propellant sticks for the rockets! The raw materiel is made in Scotland and shipped to MBA for final machining and testing. The sticks of propellant for many of the devices such as rocket packs or canopy ejection systems is placed in a lathe and machined to the correct dimensions for loading into the tubes of the device. Anti resonance holes and burn grooves are also machined into the sticks which look like plastic rods and have a similar consistency to hard nylon. They come in different colours depending on the type of propellant. White for the seat rockets and dark brown / black for the canopy rockets. I'm sure that other colours are also used but this is what I saw being handled.
Whilst there I was lucky enough to witness the proof testing of a rocket pack in the semi underground proof facility. In years past I actually witnessed an ejection by the crew of a USAF F-4 Phantom at RAF Brawdy. It is easy to forget how fast these things burn. If you think it is like a firework rocket....forget it. The burn on an average multi tube rocket pack lasts about 0.3 of a second. It is more of a bang than a whoosh!
The proofing of pyro's at the plant involved a state of the art, bespoke computer testing facility which is geared towards data retrieval and safety. Lots of CCTV and safety interlocks ensure not only safety for the workers but also continuity for the process and storage of the data.
The safety and testing is something that Martin Baker take extremely seriously. Samples from every batch of pyrotechnic devices are randomly picked and proof tested to ensure compliance with the specification laid down by the original design.
Every single pyrotechnic device is also X-rayed! Yes, every single one. This is done to check that all the cartridges are actually filled (though having seen the filling process and the individual checks does on each cartridge it seems hard to see how one could be not filled). They are X-rayed with either a conventional film X-ray or the new digital X-ray machine which has fantastic resolution (sharpness) and allows every internal component to be seen and inspected.
I was impressed by the dedication of the staff and how interested they were in taking time to explain what they did to me. I was told that every time a seat is successfully used to save a life a great cheer goes up from the pyro team.
A couple of pictures of the tower which is still used for some aspects of testing seats