Once you're done with the Sunday football games, I recommend tuning into The Discovery Channel's Plane Crash, which, in a feat of copywriting hyperbole grand even by television standards, bills itself as "the most daring mission in aviation history." Kinda makes you wonder where they'd rank Apollo 11.
But on to the show. The story is simple: Buy a tired old Boeing 727, rig it with a remote piloting apparatus and crash it into the desert with several dozen cameras rolling, plus crash instrumented dummies flailing, dirt and dust flying and scientists taking notes and recording detailed crash force data. Another bit of hype is that the data recorded in the crash sequence "will revolutionize aviation safety." Right. There really is science in this project, but mostly it's about blowing s&^% up on television and, after seeing a press preview of the show, I'm here to tell you, that makes excellent television.
Somewhere in your aviation history library you'll find a report on a joint NASA/FAA effort to do the same thing in 1984 with a remotely piloted 720. The intent was to test the fire suppression qualities of anti-misting kerosene. The airplane was flown remotely into a test range with obstacles designed to open the fuel tanks on impact. Although it didn't go exactly as planned, the test yielded enough data to prove that anti-misting kerosene wasn't worth the effort.
The Discovery Channel did things differently. It used a human crew to take off and align the airplane with the impact runway—a desert site in Mexico—and everyone bailed out after the airplane was configured for landing. Control was assumed by a chase plane, which then flew the 727 into a planned impact of 2000 FPM. They actually got about 1500 FPM, but the crash was sufficiently violent to break the airplane without burning it, which was the goal.
For a two-hour program—you'd expect no less for a $4 million budget—Plane Crash is engaging, although drawn out longer than it needs to be. (Will you please crash this damn thing!) Still, you can't go wrong with plane-to-plane visuals with lots of angles, skydivers exiting a 727 and a giant impact cloud in the desert. The narration, overheated to the point of distraction, could have been better. I was a little surprised that after equipping the airplane with a sophisticated custom servo system, they flew the thing with a hobby shop RC controller. If that had gone wrong, pfffffft…no TV. But it worked, even if the Cessna 337 chase plane initially had trouble keeping up with the 727.
The results? Really fascinating crash sequence footage from outside the airplane, from above it and from inside it. The narrator noted that none of the major transport aircraft manufacturers chose to participate, which isn't particularly surprising, given that the crash was on a sandy desert surface, not a hard runway where an accident like that is more likely to happen. I imagine that would have yielded different results and real world data more useful to engineers thinking about airline crashworthiness. As you'll see in the film, when the airplane touches down, the nosegear sinks into the sand to its full length, snapping the nose section of the airplane off in a downward moment. I'd guess the dynamic on a runway would be different.
Speaking of engineers, one of them involved noted on camera that this crash will yield data that some people will find useful. True statement, that, even though I don't think it's going to revolutionize air safety. A couple of interesting takeaways. The instrumented dummies showed that the crash brace position probably will reduce injuries, at least for this one-time instance. Second, although the overheads didn't detach, much of the wiring and ceiling panels did, making for an egress hazard.
Plane Crash is sure worth an evening of Sunday television. So microwave some popcorn, have a watch and tell us what you think.
When to Catch It:
Sunday, October 7
9:00pm Eastern Time
midnight Eastern Time
Monday, October 8
9:00pm Eastern Time
midnight Eastern Time