This is what it looks like when Nasa purposefully pummels a plane into the ground from 100 feet in the air.
Although commercial jets reach heights of up to 39,000 feet on average, and even this four-seat, single-engine Cessna 172 used by Nasa reaches 13,000 feet, the point of this experiment was not the height: it was the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) onboard.
When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing in March 2014, there was a time when a glimmer of hope remained that those onboard were safe and sound as the ELT did not activate. ELTs are designed to activate automatically in the event of a crash or if the aircraft comes into contact with water, with a beacon attached to the fuselage launching and an exterior antenna transmitting the signal to alert search parties to the wreckage’s whereabouts.
Nasa, at its Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, is looking at how to improve the durability of the ELT and increase the chances of a rescue mission reaching those in need faster. And that research involves smashing light aircraft into the Earth, nose first.
“This will provide very good data collection for us,” said Lisa Mazzuca, Nasa’s search and rescue mission manager. “This is exactly what we wanted.”
In the second of a three-test series, the plane was pulled into the air on a series of cables and slammed into an open dirt track. The first test, on 1 July, also trialled the 1958 Cessna 172 but dropped it from lower down, onto concrete. Dropping the aircraft on soil is “actually worse” than on concrete, said Nasa Langley‘s emergency locator transmitter survivability and reliability project manager Chad Stimson.
Friction provided by the soil means a swift crash to Earth, while an impact on concrete could let the aircraft skid forward and spread the force of its descent across a larger surface area.
“This was clearly more severe than the first test,” added Stimson. “No one would have walked away from this. They might be alive, but they’d need help right away. In that sense, it’s the perfect search and rescue case.” The evidence of this is clear from the video, where the aircraft it seen making contact with the ground from various angles before flipping onto its back in a total 180.
“With this one, we’re trying to push the envelope. It’s severe, but survivable.”
Importantly, the aircraft was also fitted with five ELTs that transmitted real data to satellites, so the team could measure how fast — if at all — they activated. “The cool thing is we’re using the whole system. We get real-time feedback from space […] and we’re getting first-of-its-kind data to help search and rescue get better outcomes,” Stimson said. Lessons learned from this and the third test crash will hopefully help Nasa understand how ELTs could be installed in new ways so they are more likely to survive and function, post-crash.
Other installation techniques were already being suggested shortly after the MH370 crash, which is at the centre of the news again today after wreckage thought to be from a Boeing 777 washed up on Reunion island in the Indian Ocean. The ideas included a beacon that detaches automatically when it comes into contact with water, allowing it to float and transmit its signal for longer.