Spend any reasonable amount of time talking to Professor Cynthia Bir, and you can tell she is all about the science. But even she admits purposely crashing a full-size passenger plane — in the name of science — was pretty awesome.
"This was probably the most fun and the coolest project to be able to be part of not only because of the production value (of the show) but to actually end up with real science was very exciting," said Bir, a professor of biomedical engineering at Wayne State University.
Bir was part of a landmark experiment that for the first time, recorded what exactly happens in a catastrophic plane crash. Armed with more than three dozen cameras and three, fully instrumented crash-test dummies, scientists take themselves and viewers behind every air traveler's worst nightmare. Actual video footage from outside and within the Boeing 727 — and the story behind the unprecedented experiment — will broadcast tonight at 9 p.m. on the series premiere of "Curiosity, “Plane Crash”" on the Discovery Channel.
Bir joined a team of international experts from multiple scientific fields to explore what really happens as a plane goes down, how to increase a passenger's odds of survival, and to better understand what, until now, has been virtually undocumented. As a scientist, she said it doesn't get much better than that.
"We weren't sure what was going to happen and were on pins and needles until we could see what we had after the crash," she recalled of the April experiment conducted in a barren Mexican desert. "We ended with 96 channels of data from the dummies, which was more than we could have hoped."
Scientists will now be able to study the crashworthiness of the aircraft's frame and cabin, as well as evaluate the accuracy of new 'black-box' crash recording technology that is essential for crash investigations. The data also helped measure the forces of impact on a human body and yielded some surprising results, Bir explained.
For example, passengers that are not braced for impact are more likely to experience severe spinal injuries during the crash because of an unexpectedly high level of torque on the lumbar region of the back. The other most unexpected surprise, Bir said, was the amount of debris that flooded into the cabin as the plane broke apart. Debris from both inside and outside the plane could cause severe injury to passengers and make it more difficult to get out of the plane, even if they survived the impact.
No Small Undertaking
Though she is a self-professed science "geek,"Bir is no stranger to television. Her credits include working with powerful athletes on the History Channel's "Stan Lee's Superhumans" and celebrities on "Dancing with the Stars." Notably, she even won an Emmy Award for her research work on the ESPN series "Sport Science."
But working with the Discovery Channel on this project was different. Scientists had not attempted anything on this scale since 1984, when NASA purposely crashed a plane with similar hopes of scientific discovery, but failed largely due to a fire that consumed the wreckage, according to the network's website. In this instance, scientists set out to recreate a 'survivable crash' and limited the amount the fuel on board to reduce the chances of a catastrophic blaze.
Even so, Bir said it still took fire crews hours to determine the crash site was safe to investigate. They also used a team of experienced pilots that set the jet on a crash course and parachuted out just minutes before impact.
The mere logistics of what they were trying to accomplish and the coordination of so many professional disciplines was not an easy process, said Bir, who was first contacted to participate four years ago. But the final product was well worth it, the Sturgis native said.
"The show is well done and there were so many interesting results that I think it applies to all groups of individuals," she said. Certainly to anyone that flies regularly.
Flying Safety Tips to Live By
Though scientists will continue to evaluate the data collected and apply it to future studies they have yet to develop, Bir said there were some immediate results from the experiment that are important to share:
- Brace for impact. Passengers that tuck their torsos into their laps upon impact are less likely to suffer severe and possibly fatal spinal injuries.
- Covering oneself with a blanket or coat can also help limit the the severity of injuries caused by flying debris and fire on impact.
- Passengers that sat within five rows of an exit door had a much higher chance of surviving a crash.
- Have a plan. Upon entering the plane, count the number of seats and rows separating your seat from the nearest exit. "Once the chaos starts, it's really hard to start thinking about what to do," Bir said.