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NASA and FAA Utilize Dummies to Test Aircraft Safety

Posted by Sarah Simonovich on

Remember when in 1984 NASA and the FAA got together and intentionally crashed a B-720 aircraft in the name of airplane safety? Well, they're back at it again-because who doesn't like intentionally crashing stuff?

Recently, NASA and the FAA put 10 crash test dummies to the test to help develop new crashworthiness guidelines for the future of airplane designs. But unlike The Controlled Impact Demonstration (or "Crash in the Desert") of 1984, this time they didn't crash an entire airplane--just a section of the fuselage.

For the next generation of airframe concepts, designs might utilize composite materials. And when new concepts deviate from the tried and true methods and designs of past and present, you don't actually know how well something on paper is going to work until it's off paper. Especially when it's an aircraft. Even more especially when it's new transport planes that contain nonmetallic components (hey, we're not actually flying paper airplanes here).

So in order to compare "new and novel designs" that utilize different materials, the FAA (the governing body responsible for regulating civil aviation) first needs baseline data. It's your standard experiment: you need the control group in order to quantify any experimental groups or variables. Basically, to see if a new aircraft design is more or less safe, you need to have quantifiable data regarding the safety of current design (the control to which other designs are being compared).

So how does the FAA gather data regarding how metallic, jet-sized aircraft perform? With the help of NASA and some friendly, neighborhood crash test dummies.

"NASA has the test facility and the expertise for conducting these tests," said Joseph Pellettiere, FAA chief scientist and technical advisor for crash dynamics. With their own seats, dummies, and test variables, the FAA is also able to utilize NASA's expertise to gather data on aircraft structure and what may happen to human passengers in the event of an accident.

The smartest dummies around

While car crash test dummies have made it big in all the car commercials, let's not forget the unsung heroes of the commercial airline world: the airplane crash test dummies.

Just another day at NASA Langley's Landing and Impact Research Facility. Four dummies arrive from the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City. The other six are from NASA. Not only are they outfitted in red, white, and NASA t's, but they are also instrumented with transducers for engineers to test the loads and strains on their "bodies" from the force of the drop. The cut-out cross section of the fuselage was also equipped with instrumentation to help them determine how the aircraft's structure performed under impact.

The dummies themselves were meant to represent a "cross-section of the population": 8 were "50th percentile male dummies" and modeled after an average man; 1 was a 95th percentile male meant to be heavier and taller than the average Joe;  one was a 5th percentile female dummy--5' tall and 110 pounds. When it comes to cars, we now know that diversity in crash test dummies is important because crash test figures may not be accurate if you're not an average-sized male. Since such diverse groups of individuals travel on airplanes, seeing diversity in these kinds of tests is a good thing.

Dummies with baggage

What was slightly unusual about this crash test was the additional baggage the dummies had with them in this test. Researchers added baggage to the cargo hold (unclaimed luggage from an unclaimed baggage center in Alabama) and put data recorders in them "to see how the luggage interacts with the subfloor that separates it from the dummies."

Once NASA experts have finished analyzing the information they collected during the crash test, they will share the results with the FAA to help lead discussions for better airframe-level crashworthiness and ditching standards.

You can read more about the project on NASA's website here

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