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Discovery Channel satisfies its 'Curiosity' about slamming a 727 into ground

Published October 9, 2012 10:33 am

Television • Discovery Channel satisfies its "Curiosity" about slamming a 727 into ground.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It might sound a little unfair, but the Discovery Channel special "Curiosity: Plane Crash" is the jetliner equivalent of NASCAR.

You spend the majority of the two-hour program waiting for the crash. And when it happens, you go, "Oh, cool!"

The folks at Discovery wanted to crash a passenger jet, and then they went looking to see if there was any scientific value in doing so.

Thomas Barth, a survivability factors expert and engineer who works with the National Transportation Safety Board, said he was told, " 'We're going to crash an airplane. Is there anything valuable we can get out of it? To really make it valuable, we need to have good science on it.'

"And we're, like, 'Absolutely! There's all kinds of stuff we can do.' "

There's definitely a wow factor to the program. The producers of "Curiosity" bought a Boeing 727 for $400,000 and outfitted it with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of scientific equipment to collect data.

They also outfitted it with a remote-control system so the crew could parachute off and pilot Leland "Chip" Shanle could send the jet into a controlled crash in the Mexican desert.

"I remember when we first met, he had this rather sophisticated control system in his hands with which he was going to control a 727," said Simon Andreae, Discovery's senior vice president of development and production. "And we said to him, 'Where did you get that?'

"And the answer was — RadioShack."

It was actually the controls for a toy airplane that Shanle said he bought "off the shelf."

And that is pretty cool.

"I tell you, I've been flying since 1982," Shanle said. "And I've done some crazy stuff. But that's probably the most exciting thing I've done. It was really neat."

The show doesn't really put much focus on this, but we're assured that scientists will be analyzing the data collected from this plane crash for "years and years to come to really understand everything we can learn from it," as Barth put it. "When that airplane crashed to the ground, me and the other scientists really looked at it like — this is where our work begins."

None of the airlines or aircraft manufacturers participated in the program, but the scientists and producers promised to share the results with the industry. And according to the preliminary results, the industry is doing pretty well.

"This experiment really helped us understand that we are doing a lot of things correctly," Barth said.

But you can't expect jetliners to protect their passengers and crew under all circumstances.

"You can't design the airplane to keep everybody alive if it flies into the side of a mountain at full speed," Barth said. "You have limits. And so this experiment really helped us understand that our limits are well placed, the regulations are serving their purpose, and they're pretty much doing a good job."

Oh, and crashing a 727 into the desert looks pretty cool.


"Curiosity: Plane Crash"

The two-hour documentary premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.