Maybe they’ll start putting the expensive seats at the back.
An elaborate test that involved crashing a Boeing 727 into the Mexican desert supports the intuitive logic that the safest seats on a plane are toward the rear. Call it the bonus for putting up with toilet line-ups.
The experiment was done for an upcoming documentary which walks viewers through the four years of preparation, the outfitting of the plane with sensors and crash-test dummies and the final moments after the pilot has parachuted to safety. Ultra-high-speed cameras inside and out capture the chaos for the film, tentatively titled Plane Crash and due to hit television this fall.
“The biggest mystery of all is why only some passengers make it out alive,” the narrator says in a rough cut of the documentary, to be carried by the United States’ Discovery Channel, Channel 4 in Britain and Germany’s Pro Sieben. “Can we do anything to improve the odds? Where should you sit? Does bracing help, or is it a myth?”
After analyzing their data, they say that the tests showed that the force on the forward part of the plane maxed out at 12 Gs, likely killing everyone in that area. One seat from the seventh row was catapulted nearly 150 metres
“I think it’s fairly clear that this wouldn’t have been a surviveable area of the aircraft,” said Anne Evans, a crash investigator. “Perhaps the occupants at the back would’ve survived much better and maybe even had no injuries and been able to walk off the airplane.”
The central area of the plane, roughly as far back as the wings, took a maximum of 8.1 Gs, likely causing injuries. The last few rows got only about 6 Gs, described as “no greater than being hit by a fairground bumper car.” Analysis of the crash-test dummies suggests that bracing before impact does, in fact, help.
But the team behind the project also stressed that their findings reflect the specific type of crash they engineered. Other impacts would bring different results.
Such research is obviously expensive, time-consuming and dangerous, which may explain why it is so rare. According to the team, this is the first time in nearly 30 years a full-size plane has been crashed deliberately as an experiment. In that case, NASA attempted a controlled crash that ended up as a fireball in the Mojave desert.
The documentary plane, nicknamed Big Flo after one project member’s grandmother, had previous lives carrying sports teams, prisoners and was the transportation during U.S. Republican Bob Dole’s unsuccessful 1996 presidential run. She was purchased for a bargain price and rigged out for the crash.
The plane took off from the Mexicali airport carrying the crew and three professional parachutists. About 30 minutes from impact the co-pilot and flight engineer leapt to safety, each jumping in tandem with a pro from the ramp exit at the rear of the plane. It was this ramp -- the same used in the escape of hijacker D.B. Cooper – that made exit possible and helped prompt the decision to use this model of plane.
At about 3,000 feet, the pilot and remaining parachutist jumped out. The 80,000-kilogram aircraft was left under the control of someone in a small chase plane. He brought her down towards the Sonoran Desert, wielding a modified handheld remote control device.
The normal rate of descent is 600 feet per minute. The team was aiming for 2000 and ended up hitting the ground at about 1500. The impact tore off the entire nose and sparked a maelstrom of debris inside. Ceiling panels fell, a spaghetti chaos of cable dangled throughout the cabin and slow-motion camera footage showed a teddy bear tumbling through the air. A wall of dust enveloped the plane.
“It's never been safer to fly,” Dragonfly Film and Television Productions executive producer Sanjay Singhal said in a statement. “But we want to use this as an opportunity to provide scientific data that might help to improve passenger safety in those extremely rare cases when a catastrophic aircraft accident does occur.”
The team would like to publish the results of their research and hopes that airplane manufacturers – who declined to participate – will incorporate their findings into future designs.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story, which has been corrected, misstated the plane's normal rate of descent.