Flying Black Bears

Earlier in the year, I did a series on the long and somewhat unpredictable history of animals at war. There were anti-tank dogs, bomb-guiding pigeons, plague-carrying fleas, mine-warming chickens, anti-pigeon falcons, and one ammunition-carrying bear.

Now we can add another story to the list: that of the US Air Force’s parachuting black bears. This one comes from the 1950s and the development of the B-58 Hustler, the first Mach 2 bomber. It turned out that ejection from an airplane at Mach 2 was incredibly dangerous, so the designers came up with clamshell escape capsules that enclosed each crewman and carried them safely clear of the plane. The capsules were tested by a mix of American and Himalayan black bears, who had roughly the same mass and shape as a person. The capsules worked, though the bears had to be heavily sedated during the tests. Also, having survived a Mach 2 ejection, they were euthanized and autopsied to check for broken bones and internal injuries as you can’t just ask a bear “does anything hurt?”

io9 has the story here (ignore the World War II in the title).


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