A plane crash is not something anyone wants to think about before getting on a plane. But, say what you may, it crosses our minds. We often wonder which are the safest seats on the plane in case the plane goes down. In 2012, a group of dedicated scientists deliberately crashed a Boeing 727 in Mexico to test which seats had the best chances of survival. The experiment was successful, which means that the plane did not land, but rather crashed as intended. This gave scientists a lot of data to study and analyze. Their mission was to turn these findings into lessons that could one day save lives.
So, this brings us back to the dreaded question: Where should you sit on a plane? But first, a little history about preparing for this experiment.
What is the background behind the intentional crash of the Boeing 727?
One of the biggest mysteries of a plane crash is how some of the passengers make it out alive, while others don’t. The team of scientists took first-hand testimonies from airline crash survivors and weighed the results of their choices that might have been helpful in saving their lives. Where did they sit? Were they in a supportive position? What last minute decisions did they make? The experiment wanted to explore the end results of those small judgments and combine them with the information that would come from the plane’s landing.
It was a great experience collaborating across three countries – the US, the UK and Germany. A capable team of industry experts, which included flight accident investigators, crash dynamics engineers, test pilots, scientists, etc., undertook four years of meticulous planning to put everything together. From half a million dollar crash dummies to specialized cameras, they painstakingly assembled every possible object to recreate an actual scenario.
Who actually crashed the plane and where?
The most dangerous part of this mission was the plane crash. This was done by a team of former American pilots. Their first task was to determine exactly where the plane crashed. It took the team months to research and find the perfect location. At Laguna Salada Dry Lake in Mexico, where the terrain is flat, the skies are usually clear, with no civilization hundreds of miles away. This is where they crashed the Boeing 727.
The team chose Mexico, as the United States did not allow the trial to take place. So who crashed the plane? It was a three-man team in the cockpit of a Boeing 727 that was the most dangerous in this experiment. It was flown by a former 727 pilot, Captain Jim Bob Slocum, who was the last to leave the aircraft. Once the entire team of pilots had safely parachuted from this dramatic one-way flight, it was remotely controlled by Chip Shanley, a former US Navy SEAL, from a “chase plane” flying close to the Boeing 727.
How did the actual plane crash happen?
The flight took off from Mexicali Airport with the crew and climbed to an altitude of 6,000 feet. The pursuit aircraft, a Cessna Skymaster with Chip Shanley in the remote controls, hovered closely behind, staying within 50 meters of the Boeing 727. From the area of impact, the copilot and engineer parachuted safely, leaving Captain Jim Bob Slocum alone in the cockpit. Slocum then descended the aircraft further to 3,000 feet and handed control to Chip Shanley. This was in the last three minutes of the flight. At this point he parachuted safely out of the plane, leaving the plane empty, in its last ever disastrous flight.
At the last minute, Chip Shanle in the remote pursuit plane put the plane into a quick dive at 2,000 ft/min, while planes usually descend slowly at 600 ft/min. The speed had to be perfect – very slow, and the plane would have descended hard; Too fast, and the plane can explode. But it was a “picture-perfect crash” of the Boeing 727. It slammed into the desert floor at 140 mph with a final rate of descent of 1,500 ft/min. It broke into three pieces, with the cockpit torn off from the rest of the body.
What are the safest seats on a flight in case of a plane crash?
The experiment provided a lot of data about which seats can be the safest and which ones have the least chance of survival. After examining the distance of the wreckage and the debris field, the investigators discovered that Seat 7A was ejected approximately 150 meters from the point of the crash. The cockpit was completely thrown away from the rest of the body. The nose parted and moved aft, making the front few rows the most dangerous, twelve times the force of gravity. Therefore, the main discovery was that passengers near the stopping point of the plane, wherever it is located, are likely to die first.
No two accidents are the same. Survival depends a lot on which part of the plane breaks first. In this experiment, grade 7 onwards was fatal. Row 8 and back had serious injury chances with lots of head impacts but were very survivable. However, the passengers in the back of the plane, towards the rear, have the best chance of escaping without serious injury. Sitting five rows away from any exit gives the passenger the best odds of a faster evacuation.
One of Britain’s top former plane crash investigators, Anne Evans, was the first to board the plane after the successful crash landing. She believes that in terms of relative safety, the front of the aircraft is always the most vulnerable during a collision. The middle seats, the seats above the wings, and the rear of the fuselage are always best.
This experiment adapted a common scenario, to great effect, without the plane exploding in flames. Survivors’ testimonies differ, however, and in the end, it all comes down to exactly how the crash occurred.
What are some other consequences of the Boeing 727 crash?
Scientists wanted to know what would happen if very heavy bags were placed in the overhead bin. Crash test dummies equipped with data sensors have been placed, in an effort to give insight into which positions are safer. Accelerometers were located in the first, wings and end notch near the engines. The benches were marked with numbers to test which ones were most susceptible to impact.
When the plane crashed, it was shattered into three pieces. A good sign is that the upper cabins did not open to reveal heavy bags. But it also revealed that wires and signals explode in a mess and could hamper the evacuation process. Impact boosting can be a life saver. It saves passengers from dangerously flying debris that can cause life-threatening injuries. Although both positions can suffer injuries, the prepared position will be much safer.
The landing gear under the wings, designed to break in the event of impact so as not to puncture the fuel tanks, worked as expected. The fuselage remained intact for passengers, and the seats remained in place. So this was good news for manufacturers. We hope that all the data and insights gathered from the aviation industry’s most successful on-demand crash event will be a treasure trove of new information that can be used to make air travel safer in the future.
Did you know that NASA once attempted such a landing in 1984 but failed when they lost control of the plane, and it caught fire?