Collectors of survival equipment have a craving for flight helmets, life vests, ejection seats—even shark repellant.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 4 of 6)
Mattsson assembled the 1,300 pieces of the Martin Baker seat he uses for his briefings from three decommissioned OV-1 Mohawk ejection seats, then modified the rigid, horseshoe-shaped parachute pack so that he could detach it from the seat to demonstrate the chute’s deployment.
But the ultimate demonstration for Mattsson came in 1997, when he restored a C-9 parachute, which was used in Martin Baker seats, and started skydiving with a complete ensemble. He jumps from a Cessna at 12,500 feet wearing the “correct” helmet, oxygen mask, and flightsuit, and with a tether-bound life raft hanging beneath him that deploys and inflates on the way down, just as any pilot punching out on a Martin Baker seat would have. In his replication jumps he went so far as to wait in freefall for the automatic actuation device to open his parachute for him at 4,000 feet, a last-chance option for an unconscious pilot who couldn’t pull his own ripcord.
When he’s not jumping out of airplanes and relying on computer chips to pull his parachute, Mattsson gets his adrenaline rush from riding his high-performance “crotch rocket” motorcycle, aerodynamic as a fighter jet. “I love the feeling that I’m getting away with something that I shouldn’t be able to do,” explains Mattsson, a veteran of 1,200 jumps. “That’s what ejection seats are all about. Instead of being dead in a wrecked jet, this equipment lets pilots get through their worst nightmare.” Mattsson says his penchant for collecting life support systems and escape mechanisms probably comes from growing up in a household where his father went to work every day and the family tacitly acknowledged that he might not make it home that night—a feeling that the other collectors also know something about.
Patterson’s career in law enforcement included 10 years riding motorcycles—Harleys, Kawasakis, Moto Guzzis, BMWs, and models he assessed for police use. Risk taking, riding big motorcycles, skydiving, and law enforcement are also part of LeBeau’s background. In addition to more than 2,400 skydives, he spent the early 1970s as a featured performer at airshows across the country, making car-to-plane transfers for $350 a weekend. “Pretty crazy,” LeBeau recalls; “I’d crouch on the hood of a convertible facing backwards and a plane with a weighted ladder would fly over as we raced down a runway and I’d grab that ladder and the plane would try to fly away with me dangling under it. Once we had a clipped-wing Cub with a 65-horse engine and it ended up bouncing me three times off the runway before I could climb up into the cockpit. The pilot was slapping hell out of the fuselage, my signal to climb up, but I was having problems of my own, leaving little pieces of hide on the ground.”
LeBeau, who could double for Kirk Douglas, regrets that he never made it to Hollywood to work as a stuntman. Instead, he went to school and studied law enforcement and retail security. “It wasn’t very exciting,” he says. “I didn’t last long.”
LeBeau found that even collecting survival gear can be risky. His closest call came a few years ago when he acquired a truckload of British-made aircraft instruments that were stored in an old warehouse in Benton Harbor, Michigan. He and a friend drove up from St. Louis to load the gauges and worked for an entire day sorting through broken and damaged pieces. That night, they noticed that their skin had reddened. “We’d been indoors all day and couldn’t figure how we got sunburned,” he says. Then they noticed that LeBeau’s torso was still white under the metal snaps on his shirt. “Those old glow-in-the-dark radium faces on the instruments were radioactive. We got radiation burns.” LeBeau, who won’t sell anything he wouldn’t have in his own collection, “got the hell out of there and never looked back.”
LeBeau goes to greater lengths every year to add to his collection because the pool of surplus parts is shrinking. “The lawyers are scaring everyone, including the military,” he says. “Thirty years ago all this stuff was just sold ‘as is.’ Then for a few years the military started asking itself, ‘Could anyone possibly be hurt by this thing?’ Now, instead of trying to figure that out, they just destroy everything that they don’t have any use for.”
Not long after the Persian Gulf War, the Department of Defense realized that it had scores of warehouses full of obsolete equipment meant to support a seven-year war. There was a huge sell-off, and people with a “buy a jeep for a buck” attitude started showing up at DRMO auctions. “They weren’t collectors,” LeBeau says. “They’d paid some ripoff artists hundreds of dollars to take a weekend seminar on how to buy surplus stuff and get rich. We used to see them at the auctions. The ‘clipboard people,’ we called them. The clipboards were the only thing of value they got at the seminars.”