Boeing test pilot William Mnich has been in aviation for nearly his entire life. He began his flying career in high school when he was only 15, then spent more than two decades flying as a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) at the back of a Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter jet for the Navy. He’s also one of a few thousand individuals who have ejected from an airplane and lived to tell the tale — and part of an even smaller group of people who have had to do it more than once. Mnich was lucky enough to walk away from both incidents with no life-changing injuries and a good story to tell. Plus, a very special watch.
The watch is a Bremont MBI, a special edition of the Bremont MBII, which Bremont designed with the help of Martin Baker, the British aviation company responsible for supplying about 70 percent of the world’s aircraft with ejection seats. “Martin-Baker was always a bit of a household name within our family as we grew up,” says Bremont founder Nick English. “The testing these seats have to go through is nothing short of heroic, and to have the opportunity to be able to develop a watch using their environmental and engineering testing facility was magical.” Bremont’s aim with the Martin Baker series of watches was to over-engineer a watch to the point where it could stand up to the rigors of ejecting from an aircraft. That means that it undergoes intensive testing, including extreme temperature changes (from -40 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius), altitude changes (the watch is brought up to 100,000 feet then taken back down again), shakes and vibrations, prolonged salt and live ejection testing.
“With the testing and development behind us, both Martin-Baker and Bremont felt that for those pilots who have successfully ejected from a fighter aircraft (it really was a special and elite club), a bespoke and equally special watch would commemorate this well,” said English. Special commemorative watches for specific achievements are nothing new. Rolex gives an engraved Daytona to winners of the 24 Hours of Daytona, Bulova used to give NCAA champions their own specially branded watches — even Domino’s Pizza has given Rolex Air-Kings to managers who met lofty sales goals. Like those, the Bremont is an exclusive timepiece, and though it can be purchased, you can only do so if you’ve cheated death in a Martin Baker ejection seat. For that reason, it is incredibly meaningful to its owners.
In a real-world ejection scenario, a pilot can undergo acceleration up to 14 g’s. “It’s over so quickly you almost can’t comprehend it,” says Mnich. “Depending on your state of adrenaline or your state of awareness, sometimes you may be aware of that g-force, those shocks to your body, and sometimes not. I don’t remember the acceleration, violent as it was. Normally it’s enough to make the average person unconscious, but when you’re that scared, I guess, things work a little differently in your physiology.”
Mnich’s first ejection happened aboard the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk on September 7, 1981, when a landing LTV A-7 Corsair II crashed into the back of his F-14 on the aircraft carrier’s runway. “There are a lot of safeguards that prevent that from happening… and every one of those things that could have prevented that accident failed,” says Mnich.
“People will tell you that you don’t generally eject when you think you’re going to die, you eject only when you know you’re gonna die.”
In an F-14, the ejection system is set up so that if one of the jet’s two occupants makes the decision to bail, both will be ejected from the plane. Mnich explains that in most scenarios, the pilot is so focused on trying to recover the aircraft that the RIO in the backseat is usually the one to make the decision to eject. But not in this case.
“My pilot decided we had to get out of there because he had already done all he could do to move the airplane out of the way,” said Mnich. Less than a second later, Mnich and his pilot are parachuting down into the ocean off the port side of the ship. The F-14 ended up at the bottom of the ocean, the A-7 was rendered unrepairable, and a crew member was hit by debris and lost his life.
The second incident happened five years later in March of 1987. Mnich was flying to Florida from the Miramar Naval base (now operated by the Marine Corps) to spend the weekend with his brother. Less than three minutes after takeoff, a turbine used to pressurize the F-14’s cabin caught fire. Mnich was the one who decided to eject this time around, after careful deliberation.
“Every individual step is just as clear to me now 30 or so years later as it was then. I’m thinking, ‘What can I do, what can I do, what can I do here to save the situation?’ and then almost simultaneously we felt the airplane buck. I knew [the pilot] was no longer flying the airplane…. About the same time I felt a blast of heat from somewhere back from my right rear, which is where this turbine is that caught fire,” said Mnich. “Simultaneously there was this orange flash, and that’s one of those triggers that you know within an instant, ‘I’m gonna die, I gotta get out.’ People will tell you that you don’t generally eject when you think you’re going to die, you eject only when you know you’re gonna die.”
“That watch kind of reminds me to take a little mental reset and remember things could’ve been a lot worse. And they have been for a lot of people — I think of the one kid who worked for me, the young man who never made it home.”
It was decades after Mnich’s second and final ejection that his wife gave him his MBI. According to Martin Baker, over 7,400 individuals have ejected from a doomed airplane in one of their seats and lived to tell the tale — to Mnich, “it gives you a sense of exclusivity.” There’s not much to tell it apart from the ordinary MBII, apart from the red-colored accents on the watch case and the ejection number (Martin Baker only assigns each ejectee one number, no matter how many ejections they undergo) engraved into the back of the case. Mnich’s number is 4,003.
Mnich is a watch nerd, through and through, and has owned a number of watches over the years, including a Breitling Navitimer that was ruined by saltwater after he ejected into the Indian Ocean after the incident aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in 1981. But his MBI is a personal favorite, and one with loaded with personal significance. “It’s a reminder — not that I always needed it, though sometimes I do — but that things get bad, you have a bad day and I think, ‘You know, dumbass, you can sit here and complain all you want, but you could’ve been dead at age 25 or age 30,'” said Mnich.
“That watch kind of reminds me to take a little mental reset and remember things could’ve been a lot worse. And they have been for a lot of people — I think of the one kid who worked for me, his parents sent him away on a peacetime cruise and he never came home. No war, no bullets, no anything — he just didn’t make it, and that’s terrible. It could’ve been the same story for me. It puts things into perspective.”