The documentary follows an international team of scientists, experts and elite pilots as they deliberately crash the 170-seat jet to provide a once-in-a-generation chance to study the mechanics of a plane crash in real time.
Anne Evans helped to piece together what happened at Lockerbie, Kegworth and dozens of other aircraft disasters worldwide. But despite years of studying crash sites, she’s never seen a plane crash with her own eyes.
“This is a unique experience to be able to see the aircraft beforehand and watch it crash,” says Anne Evans. “We want something that’s survivable. It’s got to be a bit heavier than a normal landing, but not so heavy that the aircraft’s destroyed and we’ve lost everything.”
The documentary recreates a common type of crash – a serious, but survivable, ‘forced landing’ – in order to study the crashworthiness of the aircraft’s airframe and cabin, examine the impact of crashes on the human body and look for possible means of increasing passenger survivability.
By crashing the plane, the programme also aims to answer key questions, such as whether sitting at the front or the rear of the aircraft, wearing a seat belt and whether you use the brace position can make the difference between life and death.
Fed Ex captain James ‘JimBob’ Slocum, who has previously survived three plane crashes, pilots the passenger jet, nick-named ‘Big Flo’ (after crew member Leland ‘Chip’ Shanle’s grandmother, Florence) on her last flight.
Putting their lives on the line, JimBob and the rest of the crew aim to parachute from the plane just minutes before impact, after setting it on a crash course. The plane will then be flown remotely until impact from a chase plane by former US Navy pilot Leland ‘Chip’ Shanle – making it the world’s biggest remote controlled aircraft.
Flying at 140 mph, and descending at 1,500 feet per minute, the aircraft will crash land nose down in a remote and uninhabited area of Mexican desert.
Rather than carrying passengers, the plane is packed with state of the art research equipment, including three crash test dummies worth $150,000 each – plus a number of simpler sand bag dummies – and accelerometers to measure the G forces on passengers. Dozens of cameras will record the crash from inside the aircraft, on the ground, in chase planes and even on the pilot’s helmet.
The scientific team behind the project includes: John Hansman, Professor of Aeronautics at MIT; Anne Evans, a former senior air crash investigators at the Air Accidents Investigation Branch; Dr Cynthia Bir, a Bio-mechanist at Wayne State University and Dr Tom Barth, an accident investigator and biomechanics engineer.
“We crash cars all the time, we don’t do that with planes to see if we can make them safer, which is what makes this such a unique opportunity,” says Dr Cynthia Bir.
Plane crashes are rare, and flying is safer than ever before, but many people still fear flying. Despite extensive testing, no manufacturer has ever tested one of their planes in this way before. The television plane crash was carried out in April this year in a remote Mexican desert.
Executive Producer, Sanjay Singhal, from Dragonfly Film and Television Productions, adds, “NASA were the last people to attempt a crash test of a full passenger jet three decades ago. Now, with the improvements in filming and remote control technology we felt that the time was right to do it again. …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.”
For safety reasons, an exclusion zone at the crash site was manned by security teams, as well as the Mexican military and police. Ahead of the crash, a full safety review of the project was undertaken by the highly-qualified pilots and commanders as well as the Mexican authorities which concluded that it was safe for all concerned. The aircraft was salvaged and an extensive environmental clean-up operation is being carried out by a reputable agency with the full co-operation of the Mexican authorities.