“One of the other things that we found out that day was the additive, the AMK itself, once you ignited the fuel, it made the fuel much harder to put out. The entire vehicle was left to burn out on its own,” Bowers, then a junior aerodynamicist at NASA Armstrong who helped prepare and analyze the experiment, recalls.

The VIPs on-hand, including Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole, who told reporters the day before that “we expect to make history,” hopped on private planes and skedaddled rather than talk to the press.

It could have been worse. “One of the things that we did not realize at the time and was added as a last-minute afterthought, we did not have a way to bring the thing down if it started heading off toward LA or San Francisco,” Bowers says. “So we asked the Air Force to roll out some fighters with live armament onboard and their job was to intercept and shoot it down before it got away anywhere.”

Pilot Fitz Fulton prepares for the Controlled Impact Demonstration.
Pilot Fitz Fulton prepares for the Controlled Impact Demonstration.
Image: NASA

Thankfully, the remote control system developed expressly for this experiment—the first time a four-engine jetliner had been controlled from the ground—worked largely as planned, despite the difficulty of using the technology of the time to control an airplane at a distance.

To make the most of their opportunity to crash a jetliner, the engineers had covered it in sensors and cameras, and stacked the plane with crash test dummies. That helped generate data used to make planes safer, one reason that US airliners are some of the safest in the world, going nearly a decade without any deadly accidents until an engine malfunction on a Southwest plane last year killed one passenger.

When it came to post-impact fatalities, the safety researchers realized that a bigger problem than fuel was that plastic fixtures in the airplane released toxic fumes as they heated, disabling and killing passengers. Today, jetliners are required to be built of materials that won’t overpower people during fires after a crash. The CID plane also tested floor-level lighting designed to help people evacuate smoky cabins.

Passenger dummies inside the CID test plane.
Breathe deeply.
Image: NASA

Another issue revealed by the accelerometers on the crash dummies was seat design: At the time, seats were built solidly so they didn’t break in a crash—instead, they transmitted the energy of impact into the passengers. Today, airline seats are built to bend and break during a crash, absorbing the energy of the impact so your body does not.

Bowers spent the rest of his career working on aviation research at NASA, most recently helping develop new technology to help pilots avoid flying their planes into the ground, a problem that is now responsible for 20% to 30% of recent aviation fatalities.

“Sometimes the experiment doesn’t work the way you thought it would,” Bowers says. “You get surprised, sometimes when it does that, you can learn a heck of a lot.”

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