Gear Heads

Collectors of survival equipment have a craving for flight helmets, life vests, ejection seats—even shark repellant.

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Patterson’s father was a World War I aviator who went on to manage an airport. Patterson says that moving from a military family into law enforcement was a natural progression for him and that he feels most comfortable in a disciplined and ordered life. Another collector, Dave Mattsson, saw his obsession begin in a family that was also involved with law enforcement and flight. Mattsson, a 36-year-old skydiving instructor, parachute rigger, and aircraft mechanic for Northwest Airlines, has been collecting ejection seats and associated life support gear since he made his first parachute jump at the age of 16, on a chute similar to the C-9 round parachute that Patterson started on.

Mattsson’s father, a Minneapolis police officer and sailplane pilot, used to take “Little David,” as he is still known at the drop zone, to his soaring club, which shared an airport with a skydiving club. “I remember all the times I saw grown men screaming ‘Yahoo!’ as they rode their canopies down,” Mattsson says. “I wanted to understand what they were feeling and I wanted to try it myself.” From a childhood spent with every kind of flying toy imaginable to his first jump and a coming of age at the drop zone, Mattsson says the allure of flight and ejection seats and survival equipment was unavoidable. “What I try to do now is keep the disease in check. A couple of years ago I got a Russian leather flight jacket. My first instinct was to complete the ensemble, to get a helmet and chute, et cetera. I caught myself and traded the jacket. That was close.”

Mattsson lives in a Cape Cod-style house with a Holstein-marked cat named Tara and 13 mannequins dressed in flightsuits and survival gear that run the gamut from World War I to present. “I feel like a mortician dressing these stiffs,” Mattsson says.  A bachelor who makes a good living, Mattsson is an ideal collector, according to LeBeau. “I’d be a millionaire if it weren’t for guys’ wives,” he laments. “I’ve had to send stuff to secret post office boxes. One guy told me he sifts dust from the vacuum cleaner bag onto new pieces in his collection, hoping his wife won’t notice them.”

Mattsson’s appreciation for the equipment he collects extends beyond just admiring it in his basement—he sometimes jumps with a C-9 parachute taken from a Martin Baker ejection seat. A Federal Aviation Administration-certified parachute rigger, he is an expert on the Martin Baker systems and spends several days every year giving a refresher course to the pilots and crews that maintain and fly the OV-1 Mohawks at the American Wings Air Museum at Anoka County Airport in Minnesota (see “The Last of the Mohawks,” Feb./Mar. 1997). Mattsson’s students zip up a flightsuit and don a helmet in preparation for strapping into the training seat and rehearsing ejection scenarios. After briefing the student on how the Mohawk’s ejection seat works (including how the canopy on the OV-1 doesn’t jettison prior to ejection—the seat punches right through it), he gently tests each student’s knowledge, asking for a demonstration of the proper posture prior to ejection or how to prevent flailing injuries by keeping elbows tucked in tight while pulling the upper ejection handle, or face curtain. Mattsson has justifiable confidence in his equipment—the Martin Baker seats he maintains may be the most successful in the 55-year history of ejection seats (See “Ejection Seats, p. 65).

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.”

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