Discovery Channel Crashes a Jet Plane — on Purpose

To study how to make air travel safer, scientists crashed a Boeing 727 jet in the Mexican desert for a Discovery Channel documentary.

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A Boeing 727 passenger jet has been deliberately crashed in a remote desert area of Mexico for a television documentary — and for our future safety.

The crash was filmed for the premiere episode of Curiosity, being put together by the award-winning British company Dragonfly Film and Television Productions in collaboration with the Discovery Channel, set to air this Sunday, Oct 7.

The documentary, narrated by actor Josh Charles (The Good Wife), will use video footage from inside the plane to show what exactly happens in a serious but survivable airline crash. The crash occurred in a remote part of the Sonoran Desert of Baja California in Mexico. Pilots and crew members all parachuted out of the jet minutes before it crashed. It was flown remotely for the final moments before impact. (The crash site was cleared by Mexican authorities and  guarded by police and military to ensure it didn’t risk the lives of anyone on the ground.) This experiment is the first time that a controlled plane crash has been carried out since 1984, when NASA tried a similar exercise.

(MORE: Are Airplane Seats Safe Enough for Overweight Passengers?)

While they make headlines when they happen, fatal air crashes are extremely rare. The last commercial air disaster in the U.S. was the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009, which killed 50 people. The lifetime odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 98, according to the U.S. National Safety Council; the odds of dying in an “air or space transport accident” are 1 in 7,178. “It’s never been safer to fly, but we want to use this as an opportunity to provide scientific data that might help improve passenger safety in those extremely rare cases when a catastrophic aircraft accident does occur,” Sanjay Singhal, Curiosity‘s executive producer, said in a press release. Using sophisticated cameras and sensors, as well as fifteen crash-test dummies positioned throughout the plane, scientists were able to analyze the forces exerted on passengers during a major plane crash in order to figure out how to make them more survivable in the future.

The cameras inside the 188-seat plane showed that while the pilots could have survived the crash, those seated in first class would likely have been killed. Passengers seated in the middle of the plane would have suffered a few broken bones and concussions, while those at the back could have walked away unharmed. However, in order to survive a plane crash, it is vital that passengers know how to brace themselves for the impact. Footage of the crash was recorded from all angles to give scientists a fully comprehensive understanding of the outcome of such an accident.

The full results of the controlled crash will be released later this year in a feature-length documentary which will air on the Discovery Channel in the U.S., Channel 4 in the U.K. and Pro Sieben in Germany.