Retired Navy pilot Dave Kennedy sat in the Mexicali airport tower as the passenger jet began a steep descent toward the Sonoran desert.
The Thousand Oaks man was a part of a team spread out in the air and on the ground as the seconds ticked down and the pilot of the Boeing 727 climbed out of the cockpit and parachuted out of the plane.
Three minutes later, the airliner smashed into the dry lake bed, sending up a plume of dirt and wreckage. Its cockpit buckled as a wave of debris rushed through the inside of the cabin.
It was just as they had hoped.
Four years earlier, Chip Shanle — CEO of a company called Broken Wing, a colleague of Kennedy and an airline pilot by day — got an unusual request. Broken Wing, which provides aviation expertise for films and other projects, was asked to purchase an airliner, design a remote control system to operate it, and then crash it.
Downing the Boeing 727 was part of an experiment aired recently as the premier episode of “Curiosity” on the Discovery Channel. It was the first time a plane was crash-tested since 1984, when NASA attempted it with mixed results, according to the network.
Creators hoped to create “a serious but survivable crash landing,” allowing experts to study how the plane would handle such an impact and its effects on passengers, according to the network. Results could be studied for years and possibly inform safety experts.
But before the studies started and the plane broke into pieces, a team of aviation experts had to be rounded up. Shanle, along with Kennedy, also a Broken Wing employee, started making calls.
“The link between everybody is that we have all been at Point Mugu at the same squadron that operated full-scale airplanes that were remotely controlled,” said Kennedy, the project’s chief test pilot.
Shanle, who retired from the Navy in 1998 and now lives in St. Louis, controlled the 727 from a chase plane. The other team members included Morris Barnett, an engineer and electronics technician at Point Mugu who designed and built the remote control system.
“The idea of crashing an airliner to advance safety was very big,” Barnett said.
But he and others signed on for two main reasons: It would be a challenge, and it was a chance of a lifetime.
Barnett, Kennedy, Shanle and others all had day jobs. They spent evenings and weekends poring over details of the project and working out the kinks. They thought many times it might never happen.”So many people were telling us that it couldn’t be done, that it was impossible,” Kennedy said. But it was just too good of an idea to give up on, he said.
They found the airplane in a storage facility in Ardmore, Okla. Its $449,000 price tag included delivery to San Bernardino, where it was tested and made airworthy before heading to Mexico.
The site was perfect for the mission, Shanle said.
“It was a dry lake bed. There was nothing on it, just dirt,” he said. “And it was ringed by mountains.”
The plane only had to be controlled remotely during the crash descent. Until then, a pilot would fly it. The plane would be flown with only two of three engines, both on low power so it couldn’t climb. Even if everything failed, the plane wouldn’t make it out of the range, Shanle said.
By the time crash day finally came, they had practiced it over and over and worked out contingency after contingency.
“It was a relief to get in the airplane and go,” Shanle said.
Eight planes were in the air that day, from the 727 to a helicopter carrying a photographer.
When the engines started on the 727, the timeline began ticking down.
“There are no small changes at that point,” Kennedy said. “One change has a ripple effect on everything.”
But a fuel pump problem grounded the original chase plane. Kennedy’s plane had to be used for the chase, and he ended up in the tower listening to operations — “that’s like sitting in the waiting room. It’s not where a pilot wants to be.”
Video captured him sitting there, an intense look on his face as he listened to the communications on a radio.
“As one of the people that is running the program and with the experience I’ve got, I’m just wondering what is going to go wrong,” Kennedy said.
And everything wasn’t perfect. The backup chase plane was right on the edge of not being good enough, Barnett said. Its maximum speed was about the same as the 727’s operating speed.
It took “a tremendous amount of pilot skill” to stay in position, Kennedy said.
But as the airliner dropped about 2,000 feet per minute — so it would break apart but not explode — it looked good. Later, after everyone was safe and accounted for, Kennedy exhaled.
It was time for the scientists to go to work, and for the aviation crew to get some sleep.
But they hope their work isn’t over. Barnett already has ideas to improve the remote control system, and the others have various crash test scenarios they want to try. They said they want to be part of improving aviation safety.
“We brought together a team of folks who really knew what they were doing and approached the unknown in a very systematic and scientific way,” Kennedy said. “This was an incredible team effort.”
On the Net: http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/curiosity ___
(c)2012 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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