When the U.S. military was developing its first supersonic jet bomber in the 1950s, they realized that a plane moving nearly twice the speed of sound needed an upgraded ejection system, in case the crew needed to bail out. To make these modifications to the Convair B-58 Hustler, testing of a variety of escape mechanisms was necessary. The U.S. Air Force decided to use Himalayan and American black bears -- which are fairly close approximations of the size, shape, and weight of humans -- to be their living test dummies.
Unsung animal heroes of the Cold War:
- The bears were sedated before take-off, and then ejected at a variety of altitudes and speeds. Several suffered broken bones and other wounds, but all survived, according to military records.
- The preferred ejection system sent the pilot's capsule upward with a rocket burst, and automatically deployed a parachute. The capsule could float and contained survival supplies.
- The tests ejected the bears at 45,000 feet (13,716 m) at speeds up to Mach 1.6. Documents indicate that despite surviving the tests, six bears were euthanized and underwent autopsies after testing concluded.