THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF DEVELOPING A WATCH THAT CAN SURVIVE EJECTION SEAT TESTING
When you get up close to a Martin-Baker (MB) ejection seat, the first thing that strikes you is quite how incredibly beautifully they are engineered – the knurled aluminum, the polished steel, the composite carbon-fibre. The time, the energy, and the sheer attention to detail that has clearly gone into their manufacture is extraordinary. And so it needs to be. With close to 7,500 lives saved to date and with over 70% of the western world’s air-forces relying on them, the responsibility on this British aviation company is considerable.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Giles and I grew up in a world of aviation. Our father was an aeronautical engineer driven by a passion for all things mechanical, whether it be a Merlin aircraft engine, a vintage car, or an old grand-father clock. He learnt to fly before he could drive, flew with the Royal Air Force and did hundreds of airshows in historic aircraft. As we grew up, we were lucky to do the same. We were sponsored and flew with the RAF during university and ended up doing airshows all around Europe. We began to understand and appreciate quite how well these incredible vintage military aircraft had been made – they were mechanically uncompromising and had a real purpose about them. You had to have the utmost trust in the aircraft you were flying.
For those lucky enough to fly fast jets in a western air-force, much of that trust comes from the seat you sit on. If you have an engine failure, you cannot gently glide one of these aircraft down into a recently harvested field. You have seconds, sometimes fractions of seconds, to leave the aircraft if you want any chance of survival. It was the British aviation company, Martin-Baker, who pioneered the ejection seat back in the mid-1940s. Founded as a company to make fighter aircraft back in 1934 (a rival to the Supermarine Spitfire), the company changed business direction when, in September 1942, Captain Valentine Baker, the chief test pilot and one of the company’s founders, died whilst test flying the prototype MB3 aircraft when the engine seized.
Devastated by the loss of his great friend, engineer and business partner, James Martin (eventually to become Sir James Martin), dedicated the rest of his life to escape technology for aircraft and pilot safety. In 1944, James Martin was invited by the then Ministry of Aircraft Production to investigate the practicability of providing fighter aircraft with a means of assisted escape for the pilot. After investigating alternative schemes, it soon became apparent that the most attractive means would be by forced ejection of the seat with the occupant sitting in it, and that the most effective means of doing this would be by an explosive charge. The Martin-Baker ejection seat was then born.
THE START OF THE PARTNERSHIP
Fast forward sixty-plus years, and a conversation between Bremont and Sir James Martin’s grandson, Andrew Martin, began. I had put a call into Andrew asking to meet up, and soon afterwards we were sitting around a table together at their rocket R&D facility near the Oxfordshire village of Charlgrove, UK. I remember the meeting well, we were sitting there with Andrew and his father Sir James Martin when an alarm sounded, conversation stopped, and you could hear the roar of a rocket engine being tested in the distance. This was the real deal.
As a company, we were particularly interested in their environmental testing facilities and the engineering acumen MB had access to, with the possibility of producing a very exclusive watch for those pilots who had ejected out of an aircraft. Each watch would have a unique back-story attached. For those pilots who have ejected, they become part of the exceedingly exclusive MB "Ejection Tie" club with the membership gift being a tie. A mechanical watch built in the UK would be wholly preferable, clearly, and Marin-Baker wanted to subsidize a watch that ejectee pilots could acquire if they so desired. This sounded wholly reasonable, both Giles and I agreed, but Martin-Baker wanted the watch to have gone through the same testing programme as the seats themselves. This sounded great in theory - in practice, it was to be a long road ahead.
THE TESTING PROCESS
Relatively quickly, we adapted a version of one of our existing chronographs to be a test case to see how it would fare when subjected to some of the initial vibration and shock tests the seats would be put through. It became very clear almost immediately that changes to the watches would have to be made. The tests fascinated us. A technical mannequin would be strapped in a new flight suit with new boots to the particular seat being tested. In turn, the seat would be strapped to a huge vibration rig that when turned on, would shake vigorously for a period of hours thus simulating the equivalent of around 20 years in the aircraft cockpit. What was incredible to witness was that, after a matter of hours, the mannequins suit and shoes would look as if they had been worn in a cockpit for years. The shoes soles would be worn down, the suit frayed, and our poor old chronograph had stopped working.
At this point, we were just relieved the watch had managed to stay strapped to the dummy’s wrist! Not long afterwards, we attached the repaired watch to a mannequin about to simulate a helicopter seat crash test. The seat is fired along a ramp and comes to a very abrupt stop. The seat absorbs a huge amount of the shock protecting the occupant as much as possible. Seat splinters fly in every conceivable direction and the seat, through its design and engineering crumples with the occupant doing only what can be described as being a rather exaggerated rodeo routine. Arms flail and the watch, again strapped to the dummy, goes through forces one would not want to experience in a real life situation.
So how did the watches fare? They certainly didn’t break in every test, but some tests, especially the vibration testing, were taking their toll on the watches. During the sort of testing we were doing, there was an incredible amount of centrifugal force being exerted on the automatic rotor, and by default, pressure between the movement and the watch case. The strain on the centre axis (rotor post and therefore auto-bridge) and rotor screw were significant, and we saw on a recurrent basis rotor bearings becoming detached and retaining screws breaking off. Case-back crystals were also cracking.
We needed to go back to the drawing board. It didn’t take long to work out that a lighter, less complicated three-handed movement would be the better option. We opted for the chronometer rated BE-36AE (a 2836 finished to our technical specification) with the day/date functionality. A solid case back, something we had never done at this point, would be a sensible modification and some form of protection for the movement inside of the watch case. The majority of modern mechanical watch movements have Incabloc (spring-loaded mounted system for jewel bearings that support the balance wheel and protect the very delicate pivots) or the equivalent, which certainly helps protect the movement against shock, but most watches (including all of ours at this juncture in our history) have the movement fixed into the watch case via a metal movement mount. This means you have a metal movement effectively fixed to the metal watch case, which in turn, results in any shocks and jolts the watch case is subjected to being past directly through to the watch movement itself. There is no protection between the two.
After some head scratching and after much testing, we arrived at a design whereby the movement itself would be "insulated" shock-wise from the watch case by way of a rubberized movement mount. This rubber movement ring couldn’t be too soft or the movement would end up moving within the case too much - and if it was too hard it would not do its intended job of absorbing shock. We eventually got the consistency right, and tests soon pointed towards very positive results. We also developed a new rotor-retaining screw which, when torque-fitted, was less susceptible to sheering apart under force.
To protect the chronometer-rated movement, a new 43mm case was developed. Very early on we knew we wanted two crowns. One for time/date adjustment, the other for an internally rotating bezel that would act as an adjustable minute marker and simple stopwatch. The bezel, for the first time, would incorporate the new Bremont "Roto-Click" technology housing a number of small hardened ball-bearings which would click through every minute marker. The case would continue to be of a three-piece "Trip-Tick" construction, but altered slightly to allow an anodized aluminum middle case ring to decorate the watch. The hardened case (2000 vickers) would also be designed to encase the movement in a soft iron Faraday Cage to help protect it against unwanted magnetic and electro-static forces. The big challenge for us was building all of this technology into a thin 43mm case.
THE BREMONT MBI
This coloured anodized ring has gone on to become something incredibly meaningful and almost iconic in military/aviation circles. If you have ejected using a Martin-Baker ejection seat you are eligible for a Bremont MBI chronometer with a red decorated middle barrel. What is specific about this very distinctive watch is that, apart from each one being uniquely numbered with the pilot’s ejectee number (held on a register at Martin-Baker HQ in Denham, UK), is that each watch made has such a wonderfully special story attached to it. The stories that arrive with their pilots having ejected from over 200 different types of military aircraft over the years is each worthy of a book in its own right. Many have happened during conflict, aircraft carrier operations, or training. What is even more remarkable is that some of these pilots get in contact and ask for three ejection numbers to be inscribed on their new MBI caseback. These military pilots normally come from a test piloting background or have just been exceedingly unlucky – however you look at it, this can safely be classified as being "tested beyond endurance!"
With this comes some truly inspirational stories of those pilots that have been ejected, many of whom now own a red-barreled Bremont MBI watch. We have also seen some fairly remarkable accounts where pilots who already own one of our exclusive military edition Bremont MBII or III watches have subsequently ejected from their aircraft. Rather than get an Bremont MBI watch, they have asked to exchange their current watch barrel to red signifying that they have survived an ejection. For example, last year we had a young F/A-18E Super Hornet pilot who had recently ejected from the deck of a US aircraft carrier. Still on crutches with a broken leg, he told us the story of how his aircraft became engulfed in flames following a refueling malfunction. With no altitude and no airspeed, he ejected and just avoided the rotor blades of a running helicopter as he slammed into the deck of the carrier with just one swing of the parachute. After finishing this amazing story of survival, he asked if he could swap his squadron MBIII watch side barrel for red. He now wears a very unique Bremont watch that tells his amazing story.
Almost every day we receive an email from one of the 7,500 Martin-Baker ejectees asking about the Bremont MBI watch. It is always a great honour to work with these incredible individuals and provide them with something extra special to commemorate the day that MB seat gave them another chance.
Written by Bremont Co-Founder, Nick English