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date: 18 September 2020

Martin, Sir Jamesfree

  • Robin Higham

Martin, Sir James (1893–1981), ejector seat designer and manufacturer, was born on 11 September 1893 at Killinchy Woods, Crossgar, co. Down, Ireland. His father, Thomas, a farmer and inventor, died when James was two, leaving his mother, Sarah, to bring up Martin and his only sister. He had designed a three-wheel motorcar before preparing to go to university. A visit to Queen's in Belfast convinced him that he already had more practical knowledge than he was likely to learn there, so he joined his sister in London. By 1925 he was manufacturing his own vehicles in Acton, and at the same time he raced cars.

In 1929 Martin established his Martin Aircraft Company at Denham, where the business remained until his death. His goal, with the help of two boy mechanics, was a simpler and safer aircraft, then very much on aeronautical minds. Though in the next seventeen years he built five prototypes, including very fast modern fighters, he was regarded as too radical and unorthodox by the rather stuffy bureaucracies of the day. In 1934 Captain Valentine Henry Baker, a well-known flying instructor whom Martin had met some years previously, joined him in forming the Martin-Baker Aircraft Company. His experience and skill contributed to the design and development of the MB 1 and later prototypes. Their fighter, the fixed-undercarriaged MB 2 of 1937, which contained many advanced features for simplicity of construction and operation, was not ordered in 1939 in spite of laudatory reports. In 1942 the formidable MB 3 exceeded the Air Ministry's specification F.18/39, but Baker was killed in a crash of the prototype. The MB 4 was abandoned in design, but in May 1944 the first flight of the prototype of the ‘magnificent’ MB 5 took place. It was too late in the Second World War and none was ever ordered. The MB 5 was the last of Martin's aircraft designs to fly. He developed a single-engined jet design, the MB 6, but it never went beyond the drawing board.

After the loss of his partner and flying instructor, Martin became much concerned with how to save the lives of pilots. With the arrival of the much more expensive jet aircraft, which were entering new aerodynamic territory including very serious problems for pilots trying to bail out, Martin entered the field for which he was best known—ejector seats. In early 1944 at an Air Ministry suggestion he began work on the idea, although the concept dated back to 1940, when Martin-Baker had begun to provide the RAF with explosive balloon-cable cutters, while at the same time Martin had developed a small, simple mechanism to jettison Spitfire canopies. After tests with dummies, the first live ejection took place from a Gloster Meteor jet in 1946, and Martin was on the road to developing the world's standards in such work. Shortly after the successful test, representatives from the United States Navy visited Denham and by late 1946 had ordered ejector seats for its aircraft. In June 1947 the British followed suit and at last Martin-Baker had real production orders.

The first models simply ejected the pilot, who had then to release the seat and pull the ripcord of his parachute. Soon realizing that this was unacceptable, especially in view of data acquired on the vertical forces on the human body, by 3 September 1953 Martin had perfected the system which allowed a live ejection while the aircraft was still on the runway. In the meantime both British aircraft manufacturers and the RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots had opposed the whole idea of ejector seats. Still not satisfied with a 12 per cent fatality rate, mainly occurring when pilots ejected close to the ground, Martin increased the explosive charge to send the seat higher and thus allow more time for the automatic opening of the parachute. He also added an explosive to jettison the canopy, further speeding up the ejection procedure. By 1966 MB seats had saved 1165 lives, and many more have been saved since.

A friendly and forthright managing director who got on well with his workforce because he was actively involved with their work and concerned to save lives, Martin lived close to his work and never took a holiday. Though not a church-goer, he frequently quoted the Bible and was generous. In 1942 he married Muriel Haines. They had two sons and two daughters, to whom he was devoted.

At the end of his work he was well honoured as one of the leaders of the second generation of British aviation entrepreneurs. He received the Wakefield gold medal of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1951, the Laura Taber Barbour air safety award (USA) in 1958, the Cumberbatch safety trophy in 1959, and the Royal Aero Club gold medal in 1964. Among other honours he was made OBE in 1950, CBE in 1957, and knighted in 1965. He died at his home, Southlands Manor, Denham, on 5 January 1981, survived by his wife.


  • J. Jewell, Engineering for life: the story of Martin-Baker (1979)
  • The Times (6 Jan 1981)
  • The Times (10 Jan 1981)
  • M. Ginsberg, ed., Flight International directory of British aviation (1981)
  • Daily Telegraph (6 Jan 1981)
  • B. Bedford, ‘The man behind Martin-Baker: a tribute’, Flight International (12 March 1983), 680
  • P. Lewis, The British fighter since 1912 (1974)
  • J. Martin, ‘Ejection seats’, Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, 70 (1966), 276–9
  • J. Jewell, ‘The life and work of Sir James Martin’, Aerospace (May 1982), 12–21
  • d. cert.
  • D. Hey, The man in the hot seat (1969)
  • R. Higham, ‘Martin, Sir James’, DBB


  • photograph, repro. in Jewell, Engineering for life

Wealth at Death

£815,493: probate, 22 May 1981, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

D. J. Jeremy, ed., , 5 vols. (1984–6)