When the Air Force Used Black Bears as Test Pilots

Bar Room Banter

There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, mix yourself a glass of something good, and take notes as we look at the black bears that became test pilots of nuclear-armed bombers.

The year was 1962. The Cold War was in full swing, the threat of nuclear conflict hung in the air… and the United States Air Force was using black bears as test pilots.

Here’s why.

To ensure our advantage in a nuclear conflict, the American brass wanted a bomber that could fly higher and faster than the Russians. So, the war machine created the Convair B-58 Hustler, the first operational bomber capable of Mach 2 flight (twice the speed of sound).

It was a marvel of aeronautical engineering, but it had a problem. Or, more specifically, its pilots had a problem.

Ejecting from an airplane traveling at Mach 2 was, in a word, dangerous. When a B-58 crashed in 1959, one of the crew members ejected successfully but still died. Another broke his arm in the process.

Air Force engineers along with a fella named Bob Stanley solved this problem by creating an ejection seat system that looked a bit like an escape pod from a science fiction movie. The pilot pulled a handle that forced the pilot’s legs in close and closed a scalloped shell around him. A separate handle launched the pod into the air, and a parachute controlled its descent. Once on the ground, the pod (which could also float) contained enough food and water to survive until the pilot could be rescued.

Escape Pod

It was a great idea, but it was still untested. That’s where the bears came in.

Presumably because monkeys are too small and dogs couldn’t get their paws around the yoke, Air Force engineers enlisted young Himalayan and American black bears to test their new ejection seat. Bruins approximately the size and weight of humans became the Air Force's newest recruits.

Supersonic testing began on March 21, 1962, at Edwards Air Force Base in California, according to a documentary of the process produced by General Dynamics. At a speed of Mach 1.3 (997 mph) and an altitude of 35,000 feet, a heavily sedated and no doubt traumatized bear was launched 225 feet above the B-58’s flight path and floated to the ground seven minutes and 49 seconds later.

Bear 1

Incredibly, according to the Air Force, the bear was fine.

“An on-the-spot examination of the bear together with the usual, more careful regime of tests conducted later, showed the animal to be in excellent shape,” they said. “All in all, the success of the ejection was so complete as to give great encouragement to all concerned.”

Injured Bears

The team of engineers from the Air Force, General Dynamics, and Stanley Aviation conducted many more tests throughout the course of the year, six of which used bears and one of which used a chimpanzee. If the Air Force is to be believed, only two of the tests resulted in injured (though still very much alive) bears.

The second supersonic test bumped up the plane’s speed to Mach 1.6 (1,227 mph) and increased the altitude to 45,000 feet. All systems functioned properly, but “more violent” movements of the capsule were observed and the bear suffered two fractures to its pelvic bones, a hemorrhage in the neck muscles, and a nose bleed.

Fortunately, the cheery documentary narrator offers good news along with a definition of “reversible”: “These injuries to the animal were reversible, that is, not of a permanent nature,” he says.

In the test conducted on July 27, 1962, the engineers tried slowing the plane down to Mach 0.92 (706 mph) and reducing altitude to just 2,500 feet. Unfortunately for the bear, the capsule malfunctioned and landed on its side, and “internal injuries of some severity to the bear were at first reported.”

However, for reasons the narrator does not explain, there arose some doubts as to the exact timeline of the bear’s injuries. “A more complete and careful examination of the animal, however, raised the question of whether these were inflicted during the test or at some earlier time,” he says. “In any case, the final consensus of medical opinion was that the bear’s injuries were reversible.”

Thank goodness!

In reality, none of the bears’ injuries ended up being truly reversible. Despite the documentary’s implication that the bears were free to chow down on government-funded snacks and live the remainder of their lives in a zoo, Gizmodo reports that the “the usual complete medical examination” that all bears received was actually a euphemism for “euthanized and necropsied.”

The engineers no doubt justified this unfortunate decision because they had to verify that their capsule wasn’t blending the bear’s insides. It’s also worth noting that even though the B-58 was retired just a few years later in the wake of intercontinental ballistic missiles, these and other ejection seat systems are credited with saving thousands of lives.

Bear 2

Bear Conservation

The Air Force bears of the 1960s have also inspired some modern-day conservation work. One of the shop owners in the building that used to be the Stanley Aviation factory is still trying to give back, according to a recent CBS report. Stephanie Shearer owns a shop in what is now called the Stanley Marketplace, and she’s partnered with a bear conservation organization to raise money for the endangered Andean spectacled bear.

This species of bear lives in Peru, and the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society works to conserve its critical habitat. Shearer donates a percentage of her revenue to the Society, and so far she’s raised enough money to buy about 10,000 acres of land in Peru.

Believe it or not, these aren’t the only black bears to play a major role in Cold War history. As we covered in a previous Bar Room Banter, a black bear nearly launched World War III when it was seen climbing the fence of a Duluth Air Force base.

That incident took place on October 25, 1962, just two months after the conclusion of these ejection seat tests.

Was this a bear bent on revenge for the abduction of its colleagues? Or a would-be Flying Ace asking for a chance at glory? The world will never know.

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