When a helicopter plummeted into the ground at more than 30 miles per hour this week, there was nothing but jubilation from the scientists on the ground.
That’s because this crash was the culmination of some two years of preparation between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US Navy and Army, and the Federal Aviation Administration to find out how to make a helicopter crash survivable. To test a helicopter’s crashworthiness, scientists first had to crash one.
So, on Wednesday, scientists strapped 15 dummies – some dressed in Army fatigues and others in civilian T-shirts and shorts – into their helicopter seats at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The helicopter, a former Marine craft weighing some 10,300 pounds, was pulled 30 feet above the ground and swung like a pendulum. A countdown began. Then, the helicopter was dropped.
About 40 cameras recorded the plunge from multiple perspectives. From the outside view, the fall looks elegant, almost gentle. The inside view is less so: from that vantage, the 15 placid-looking faux passengers are jolted from their seats.
"We designed this test to simulate a severe but survivable crash under both civilian and military requirements," said NASA lead test engineer Martin Annett, in a release. "It was amazingly complicated with all the planning, dummies, cameras, instrumentation and collaborators, but it went off without any major hitches."
During the crash, high-speed cameras filming at 500 images per second tracked the black dots painted on the helicopter, allowing scientists to assess the exact deformation of each part of the craft, in a photographic technique called full-field photogrammetry.
The data from the crash, called Transport Rotorcraft Airframe Crash Testbed full-scale crash test, will still take months to analyze, though preliminary evidence suggests that some of the dummies would have sustained serious injuries, were they real people. A crash test of a similar helicopter equipped with more technology is planned for next summer.