A story Thursday on fighter jet ejection seats mentioned three prominent seat manufacturers, but it omitted two major U.S. manufacturers: Universal Propulsion Co. and East-West Industries. (RP 1/ 29/91)

Military pilots call it "punching out." Some describe the sensation as surreal, a seemingly slow-motion experience in which they step outside their planes and watch them drift away.

But ejecting from a crashing jet fighter is anything but slow motion. Less than two seconds elapse from the pilot's tug on an ejection handle to his safe perch in the clouds under a fully deployed parachute. Add one more second if the plane is traveling faster than 250 knots -- about 288 mph.

Operation Desert Storm is providing the first battle experience for a new generation of "smart" ejection seats that has saved hundreds of pilots in crashes in the post-Vietnam era -- and occasionally embarrassed a student pilot who panicked at the wrong moment.

The new seats have proved to be high-tech marvels, allowing ejections in conditions ranging from a plane sitting still on a runway to crashing upside down only 150 feet from the ground.

Ejection seats are likely responsible for the survival of most, if not all, the pilots who have been taken prisoner in Iraq.

Videotapes of the first prisoners of war, showing puffy, bruised and scratched faces, raised questions whether they received their wounds at the hands of their captors or from ejecting. According to the experts, the answer is: probably not from ejection, although pilots have been cut and bruised from landing in trees or brush.

"They don't have any exposed flesh at all" as they eject, said Jeff Eckhart, program manager of escape systems for McDonnell Douglas Missile Systems Co. But because of uncertainty about where they might have landed, "it's absolutely impossible to determine" how the bruises and cuts happened, he said.

McDonnell Douglas is the largest U.S. manufacturer of ejection seats, second only to the Martin Baker Aircraft Co. in Britain. The Weber Aircraft Co. in Fullerton, Calif., also makes ejection seats.

The Germans developed the first ejection seat in 1944 for use in the world's first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt-262, a crude device that essentially catapulted the pilot out of the plane. In the years since then, ejection seats have gone through a high-tech evolution.

Ejection seats saved many pilots in Vietnam, but a number of pilots broke arms or legs because their harnesses were too loose, allowing limbs to flail about in the sudden blast of air outside the plane. That problem was solved in later models with harnesses that tightened automatically on ejection.

Almost all aircraft involved in Operation Desert Storm have the new generation of ejection seat, the major exception being the B-52, which has older-style seats. Martin Baker supplies ejection systems for most Navy jets, such as the A-6, the F/A-18 and the F-14. McDonnell Douglas supplies most of the others, including the A-10, the F-15, the F-16 and the F-117A "stealth." McDonnell Douglas calls its seat the ACES-II, for Advanced Concept Ejection Seat.

The ACES-II has saved 209 pilots in peacetime, plus those who have been saved in Desert Storm. It failed in one case because of improper maintenance and on a few occasions when the pilot waited too long and ejected "outside the envelope," essentially too close to the ground.

The ACES-II and its counterparts are designed to do everything for the pilot once he makes the decision to eject, a decision left solely to the pilot. A handle on either side of his seat, or between his legs in some planes, is the only equipment he needs.

"If you pull it, you're gone," said an Air Force officer. "If you don't want to go, don't pull it."

No ejection seat can be controlled by anyone other than the pilot, although one crew member in a two-seat plane can eject his partner if he is incapacitated.

In the first three-tenths of a second, the cockpit canopy is supposed to be jettisoned as a gas charge catapults the pilot and his seat straight up at 45 feet per second. If the canopy stays in place, the seat is designed to blast the seat and the pilot straight through it with no injury.

As the seat blasts out, emergency oxygen and an "environmental sensing unit" are activated at the same time that a rocket blasts the seat away at about 13 times the force of gravity. The environmental sensing unit determines instantly how high the seat is and its speed through the air.

If the air speed is less than 250 knots, a 28-foot-wide circular parachute is blasted from the seat with a mortar charge, and the seat is separated from the pilot. As the chair falls away, the chute slows the pilot. At speeds over 250 knots, a drogue chute deploys from the back of the seat for one second, slowing the seat before the main chute deploys.

Four seconds later, a survival kit and a fully inflated life raft -- if the pilot chooses this before ejection -- automatically drop on a line from his harness as he drifts down.

"They say it's like a high-speed elevator ride with a fairly quick stop," said Eckhart, who has interviewed most pilots who have ejected in the ACES-II.