Oct. 1, 2012 -- A test crash of a Boeing 727 in the Sonoran desert to learn more about what actually happens to passengers when a plane goes down found that simply bracing for impact could help save lives.
In one of the most ambitious tests ever undertaken in the name of airline safety, Discovery TV had a Boeing 727 equipped with more than a half a million dollars worth of crash test dummies, 38 specialized cameras and sensors, and a crew of incredibly daring pilots. The pilots, who'd donned parachutes, bailed out of a hatch in the back of the aircraft minutes before the huge jetliner careered into the ground in a horrific crash that tore the plane apart.
Staged last spring as part of the Discovery Channel's "Curiosity Plane Crash," the test crash was the result of four years of planning and consultations with a huge team of experts, all to better understand what happens to passengers when an aircraft goes down.
Cindy Bir, a professor of biomedical engineering at Wayne State University, took charge of the crash test dummies, examining them immediately after the the plane hit the desert to get an idea of what injuries might have been sustained.
" I suspect … one may have a concussion, one may have a broken leg," Bir said as she looked over the dummies.
Bir told ABC News that her data made it clear that bracing for impact -- placing one's head down and putting one's hands over one's head -- could increase the odds of survival.
During the crash, which was a belly flop done nose first, passengers near the front bore the brunt of the impact. Rows one through seven held the "fatal" seats -- seat 7A was catapulted straight out of the plane.
Many of the seat-belted dummies who weren't bent over in the bracing position incurred spinal injuries from jerking forward in their seat belts.
Bir also simulated a woman holding an infant on her lap -- a familiar one-seat money-saving move many parents opt for. After a relatively minor simulated impact, the mother could no longer hold on. Bir cautioned that holding a child on one's lap was not safe.
The test crash also revealed other aspects of plane crashes, such as the tremendous amount of debris that could prove deadly to any passenger sitting upright, and how important it was to be able to get out of the plane fast. Generally, sitting within five rows of an exit gave passengers the best odds.
An MIT study that drew on worldwide safety data from 2000 to 2007 found that the chance of dying on a scheduled flight in developed nations such as the United States, Japan or Ireland was one in 14 million. In other words, a passenger who took a single flight every day could on average go 38,000 years before dying in a plane crash.
Discovery's test findings offers some tips on how to perhaps improve those odds even further.