On Mar. 21, 1962 a B-58 Hustler from the U.S. Air Force erupted in flames as a large, bright red capsule shot out of it, carrying a passenger to safety.
But the passenger wasn't a pilot, and the plane wasn't crashing. The event was a test of the B-58's experimental ejection capsules and the occupant of the capsule was a bear.
The Air Force had been struggling to figure out a safe way for pilots to eject at supersonic speeds. Initially, they had tested new ejection seat designs by hiring people they recruited out of unemployment lines to act as test dummies.
The Air Force soon switched to using live animals for the tests, including six bears and a chimpanzee. At first, the bears and other animals tested ejection seats and capsules on rocket sleds. Once the Air Force was relatively sure of the design, they began flying the aircraft and ejecting the animals at altitude.
The animals were given drugs and rigged with sensors before being placed in the ejection capsules.
Most were fine, if a bit loopy, when they landed.
There was one fatality among the animals during testing. One bear had a brain condition that wasn't detected prior to the flight and the physical strain during the ejection killed the animal. Two other bears suffered minor fractures and bruising during their flights.
Unfortunately, the Air Force needed to be sure that there were no hidden injuries before they returned to human subjects and ordered autopsies, which resulted in the deaths of the animals that had otherwise survived testing.
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