Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Fine Art Of Crashing

The how and why of crashing a 727 for science

Like any aircraft owner, I take every opportunity to fly my Mooney rather than the airlines on any semi-short trip. The economics don't always make sense, but sometimes, neither do I. Comfort, schedule and convenience are worth something. If I'm solo and need to fly more than about 600 nm to a major city, there's often little choice but to fly airline.

For better or worse, I'm usually riding in the back of the bus, which means I board early and depart last, but I've always been convinced the rear of an airliner is the safest place to fly, even if there is more noise and vibration back there.

For that reason, I was especially interested in a two-hour Discovery Channel program that aired on October 7 titled "Plane Crash," part of Discovery's Curiosity series. It was an investigation by a group of scientists who spent four years and $4 million to study crash survivability by flying an airliner into the ground under controlled conditions.

They purchased a well-used Boeing 727, rigged it with G sensors and two-dozen cameras; a trio of $150,000 anthropomorphic crash-test dummies; a dozen low-tech dummies and a model airplane remote-control system.

Then, they hired an airline crew to fly the jet toward a smooth section of remote desert south of Mexicali, Mexico, and bail out after transferring radio control to a Cessna 337 flying in tight formation. The Boeing's convenient aft airstairs were exactly the reason the 727 was chosen for the mission. (You may recall the 1971 hijacking by D.B. Cooper of a Northwest Airlines 727 in 1971. Cooper extorted $200,000 from Northwest and bailed out over Oregon the same way.)

The Skymaster maintained close formation and guided the 727 to a fairly flat but spectacular impact with a vertical speed of about 1,500 fpm. Thirty-eight cameras chronicled the event from every possible angle, both inside and outside the Boeing.

Such a feat had never been done before, at least not successfully. A joint NASA/FAA team tried the same trick in California's high desert back in 1984 with a radio-controlled Boeing 720. That test was intended, among other things, to determine if an experimental, anti-misting kerosene fuel would resist ignition.

It didn't. The test went wrong at the last minute—the left wing dropped to the desert prematurely, the airplane came apart on touchdown and the special fuel created a huge fireball.


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