McLean, VA (written by Bart Jansen/USA Today) -- The Boeing 727 belly-flops hard onto the sandy floor of the Mexican desert. Its nose is torn off as its landing gear crumples like a lame horse. Inside, unbelted occupants are tossed like rag dolls, and overhead bins spew luggage and electrical wiring into the cabin.
This is a real jetliner crash, but not a catastrophe. It's an intentional crash for the new Discovery Channel program Curiosity, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. In this case, university scientists and international investigators will get a rare second-by-second look at just what happens -- to the jet and to its occupants -- when something goes terribly wrong midflight.
This study could improve aviation safety, just as automotive crash-test dummies have for decades led to safer cars and fewer fatalities on the road. Scientists plan to mine the test results for at least a decade, writing reports and sharing the information with government regulators and industry representatives to make the 2.8 billion flights taken worldwide each year a bit safer.
The crash was modeled on others in which a plane lost speed and power just before touching down hard, then breaking into pieces. In this test case, after the crew parachuted out, another pilot flew the plane by remote control. The remote pilot slammed the jetliner into a dry lake bed at 140 mph after it had descended more than twice as fast as a fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier.
Though the pilots could have survived this test crash, scientists found that flying in first class would have been fatal. Passengers in the middle of the cabin might have suffered concussions and broken ankles, while those in the rear could have walked away. Experts emphasize that the fatalistic view of many airline passengers -- the belief that if a plane crashes, you're unlikely to survive -- ignores data that show the great majority of people in such incidents actually live.
"The chances are that if you're in a crash, you will survive," says Tom Barth, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board who studied the crash's impact on occupants of the plane.
But to survive or limit injuries, the Curiosity test case reinforced the importance of bracing for a crash and knowing how to exit a plane during an emergency. While many passengers ignore flight attendants' safety presentations, scientists say the experiment illustrated why the warnings are critical when it's go time.
"We're not trying to scare anybody here," Hansman says. "But the more we understand them, the more we can do to make airplanes even better in the future."
Scientists in biomedical engineering, crash forces and aeronautics had planted sensors and 15 test dummies throughout the plane to measure what happens to people and equipment in the crash of a big commercial jet. They recorded footage of the crash from all angles.
"It is always quite humbling to see the level of destruction in an accident," says Anne Evans, a former senior crash investigator for the United Kingdom's Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Evans, who worked on crashes including Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, still marvels at the destruction. "Nothing looks as it did before the accident."
'A rough ride'
The plane took off from Mexicali airport with six people aboard. The flight plan resembled a fish hook at speeds up to 184 mph and 6,000 feet in altitude. After about 60 miles, the first officer and flight engineer parachuted out, each in tandem with a jump master. After another 20 miles, Capt. Jim Bob Slocum banked the plane into a slow right turn wide to the north.
Slocum and another jump master left the cockpit 8 miles from the crash site, at 4,000 feet in altitude, when Chip Shanle, a former Navy test pilot who works for American Airlines, took over flying by remote control. Shanle then powered down the wing engines to nearly idle and finally, the tail engine to idle, to slam the plane into the desert floor with its wings level.
The plane was going 140 mph at impact, which is close to regular landing speed. But the 727 was descending at 1,500 feet per minute, much faster than the 10 to 20 feet per minute of a typical airliner landing.
Shanle watched from a chase plane above as the cockpit tore away from the body of the plane and collided with its left wing on impact. The flight engineer would have died, he says, but the pilot and co-pilot might have survived.
"You knew they were getting a rough ride in there," Shanle says.
He says the crash was similar to one July 19, 1989, of a United Airlines flight in Sioux City, Iowa. That plane's tail engine failed on a flight from Denver to Chicago, and the plane crashed in a fireball and broke into pieces with the cockpit separating. But while 111 people died in that crash, 185 survived.
"The cockpit tore off the same way, and there were three pilots in the cockpit, and they all three survived," he says.
Interior cameras in April's intentional crash capture a chaotic scene of carry-on luggage spilling out of bins and hitting occupants. The plane's lighting and oxygen systems collapsed above the seats toward the front of the plane. Nobody would have survived from Row 7 forward, scientists and investigators found. Seat 7A catapulted 500 feet -- nearly the distance of two football fields -- from the plane.
Luggage bin utility panels have been improved since the 727 was built, but scientists warned that the risks from carry-on luggage remain a concern today because passengers are bringing more and heavier baggage to avoid fees.
The view out one window shows the right landing gear hurtling past at 140 mph, after the tire left a black scar on the fuselage. In a British Airways crash in 2008 that Shanle says was similar to this intentional crash, a passenger suffered a broken leg when the landing gear penetrated that fuselage. But landing gear beneath the wings is designed to shear off in a crash, to avoid puncturing fuel tanks. The fuselage remained largely intact for passengers. And the seats remained in place.
"The good news for the aircraft manufacturers is that everything performed as designed," Shanle says.
The crashVIDEO: Crashing an unmanned jetlinerVIDEO: Inside the jet crash
Sources: Discovery Channel, Boeing and Flight International's World Airliner CensusBy Janet Loehrke, Jerry Mosemak and Julie Snider, USA TODAY
Sources: Discovery Channel, Boeing and Flight International's World Airliner Census
By Janet Loehrke, Jerry Mosemak and Julie Snider, USA TODAY