The Plane Crash
Dave Jesse on October 17, 2012

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in a plane crash? It’s a morbid and frightening thought – but one that we can’t help considering at times.
On Thursday 11 October, Channel 4 in the UK aired a programme called “The Plane Crash”, where an old Boeing 727 was purposefully crashed into the Mexican desert, to determine a number of factors surrounding safety. If you missed it, you can watch it online here.
So, what did they discover through the simulation? Firstly the good news is, if you adopt the correct brace position (and sit in economy, as most of us do!) you’ve a good chance of surviving the high rate of descent impact.
But, there were a couple of other things that stood out to me about the programmes findings.

For instance:
1. From an experimental point of view, this is the second time that a full-size plane crash has been carried out. The first, in 1984, was funded by NASA and cost £16million, as we are told during the program. That aircraft was controlled remotely from a distance, but became unstable just before impact and so the impact characteristics were not as planned.
The recent programme was made by Dragonfly Film & Television and MAP TV for Channel 4 / Discovery / ProSieben. With a very limited budget, they managed to get closer to their intended crash characteristics, but they badly needed a radio with more range and a faster chase aircraft. Frustrations were felt when they saw that, with a little more planning and money spent in the right places, they could have achieved more of their goals.
Still, the TV team did a lot better than NASA on a fraction of the budget. I wonder whether the Authorities were approached to offer additional funding?

2. Secondly, the final impact velocity of 1500fpm was not a lot higher than some landings we see in service. However, the nose-down attitude, particularly driving into soft ground, led to some unusual crash characteristics. Like all tests of this type, you can’t help wondering what would have happened if the aircraft has crashed…

  • in a nose up attitude
  • onto a tarmac runway
  • with passengers facing aft
  • with under-wing engines
  • with fuel on board

With budgets and logistics restrictions, no experiment is ever going to cover every variable. What was great to see however, was that the scientists put heavy loads into the overhead lockers. That’s often a worry for passengers, especially on low cost flights where customers are discouraged from using the luggage hold. During the crash, the bins stayed intact and no luggage dropped – phew.
So you may not survive the crash, but your duty free probably will!


P.S. I worked with Anne Evans in my previous job – she balances professionalism with fun and is a joy to work with. However, there’s a strange thing about working with experts from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch; due to the nature of her job, I really hope I never have to speak to her again.