“Big Flo” Helps Scientists Study the Mechanics of a Plane Crash in Real Time

There’s just something about watching a roughly 200,000-pound remote control airplane glide over the desert… it’s both eerie and beautiful. And that’s exactly what the scientists, pilots, and standby emergency responders did as they purposefully crashed “Big Flo” in April 2012.

The crash of the 170-seat Boeing 727 near Mexicali, Mexico was conducted to learn more about what actually happens during a plane crash. The experiment was captured by Channel 4 (a British public-service television broadcaster) in a documentary film appropriately titled The Plane Crash.

“Where should passengers sit to increase their chances of survival?”

“Is the standard ‘bracing’ position really the safest?”

Those are just a couple of the questions that the research team set out to answer.

On board the plane were three Hybrid III crash test dummies, which very accurately simulate human movement and responses while collecting data at a rate of 10,000 samples per second. The plane was piloted by Captain Jim Bob Slocum; he was joined by other crew members and a small group of passengers.

After taking off from General Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada International Airport in Mexicali, the flight made its way toward the Sonoran Desert as those on board gradually parachuted out through the plane’s ventral airstair. Slocum was the last to leave the plane, just four minutes before impact, at which point Chip Shanle controlled the 727 remotely from a small chase plane.

Big Flo hit the ground at 140 miles per hour and broke up into several pieces; she had been descending at a rate of 1,500 feet per minute.

Following the experiment, it was concluded that sitting in the back of the plane really does increase your chances of walking away without injury in the event of a crash. Also, passengers who adopt the brace position are far more likely to survive than those who don’t; the brace position involves getting your torso as low as possible by cradling your head on the seat in front of you, or by lowering your head and hugging your knees.

So for those of you who suffer from some form of flight anxiety, it might not be a bad idea to snag a seat toward the back of the plane to help calm your tensions. But rest assured, your chances of dying in a plane crash are a mere one in 11 million. So sit back, and enjoy the flight.

All photos courtesy of Channel 4.

Discovering my Aviation Roots: Part 2

This is the second entry of a two-part blog I did in an effort to learn more about my parents’ history in aviation. Last week, I posted about my dad’s ties to flying, from college (when his interest in aviation first began) through his careers in both the U.S. Air Force and with Eastern Airlines.

This week, we’ll learn more about my mom. She was with Eastern Airlines for about 14 years in the 70s and 80s and that’s where she and my dad met. I’ve always known how much she loved flying (and planes), but I knew there was still a lot I didn’t know about that love. She is a great storyteller with an ability to paint very vivid pictures through her words.

Enjoy!

When and how was your interest in aviation first piqued?

When I was very young, early grade school age, we lived in a rural area. Next door was a farmhouse and barn, and across the fields in the back of our house there was a small airfield. My oldest brother was often there, talking to the owner (Whitey) and the pilots, and taking an occasional lesson. I loved watching the windsock, and the planes would usually take off in the direction of our house. I loved being around my brother Steve and would often walk to the field with him. I think this is where my brother’s love of flying began.

We lived in northern Indiana, and many times planes that took off from (or were going to land at) O’Hare or Midway in Chicago, would fly over our house. I remember on cold nights being cuddled under a red and black Hudson Bay blanket in the bedroom with knotty pine walls that I shared with my brother Bob. When it was very very quiet, I could hear a distant deep hum which would grow steadily louder until I knew that the airliner was right over our house. And then I would listen until I could no longer hear even a trace of the powerful propeller sound. I imagined the people in the plane sleeping or reading; I wondered where they were going. I also wondered about the people that got to work on those planes.

What years were you a flight attendant and what was that job like? Do you have a favorite memory?

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Mom as a flight attendant with Eastern Airlines

I was hired by Eastern Airlines in the fall of 1973. I went through training and after graduation my class was furloughed. We were called back in the fall of 1974 and went through an abbreviated training refresher (one week instead of the typical six weeks). I chose New York as my first base station and was with Eastern until I resigned in late 1987.

I was based in Chicago after a short time in NYC, and in Atlanta after that. Considering who I was when I started, I grew up with Eastern Airlines. I can not single out a favorite memory, there were so, so many. Being a flight attendant is a unique lifestyle, and also a very physical job. I feel like when I was working as one, there was still a small element of “glamour” attached to the job, but nothing like the years before.

What is your favorite thing about flying?

I have always loved skimming clouds… just the beauty of the clouds and the realization of how fast you are going.

What is your least favorite thing about flying?

Windy landings were my least favorite aspect of flying; I mean really windy, not just a gentle buffet now and then. Seated in the rear of the plane you could hear the throttles being adjusted, and in the front of the plane “glide slope” and the other infamous voice alarms were things I was never fond of hearing.

Tell me about the most frightening experience you ever had on an airplane.

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Mom in front of a Concorde

I had a few, but not one stands out as being the most frightening. Shortly after takeoff in an L-1011 from Atlanta to San Juan, I was seated at the third door back on the left. As the gear was coming up there was a very loud “BOOM!” The plane shuddered a bit and lots of overhead bins flew open. There was not a lot of communication from the crew except that we were returning to the airfield. As we were coming in, I could see emergency vehicles on the ground with their lights flashing. We landed safely, but apparently some kind of mechanism in the gear had let go.

Another one was during an overnight flight from Seattle to Atlanta. Service was done, lights were out, and passengers were sleeping. The senior flight attendant and I were sitting together in a couple of seats in first class when a loud rumbling and vibration occurred; the sound was just like the sound of something meant to slow the plane down, like the flaps or speed brake, except we were at cruising altitude. The captain came out and talked to us shortly after. He explained what had happened and his other comment was, “I almost had to change my pants with that one.”

Tell me about the most magical and/or amazing experience you ever had on an airplane.

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Mom in the cockpit

So much about flying was amazing to me, it is hard to pinpoint. However, when we had an empty airplane that needed to go to another airport for positioning (a “ferry” flight), I would always accept the captain’s offer to sit in the cockpit jump seat. Takeoffs and landings up there were so exciting to me, and the view from there, with just basically the sound of the wind slipping by, was indeed magical.

Do you have a favorite model of airplane? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?

We had six different aircraft during my time with Eastern, from the prop-jet Lockheed L-188 Electra to the Boeing 757… I loved all of them. As much as I love the sound of jet engines, the sound of the four big prop-jet engines on the Electra gave me goosebumps. The nimble little DC-9, the steady workhorse 727, all the way to the long, long 757 with the back end that would sway a bit during flight… I really did love them all.

What do you miss most about your career in aviation?

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Mom with friends and coworkers Lucinda and Beverly

I miss the airplanes of course, and the crew members that I got to know, and the ability to fly almost anywhere for a minimal amount of money. Eastern was like a huge family… everyone was there because they loved airplanes and the industry. It is very sad that the company doesn’t exist anymore after such a long, proud history.

What is the most drastic change you’ve seen over the years between when you first started your aviation career and today?

Like I said earlier, I flew in the days when there was still something special about air travel. We served full meals in coach even on short flights, and served several-course meals on china and crystal in first class on longer ones. Toward the end of my career with Eastern, the “no frills” seats were starting to appear, but they were nothing like many of today’s flights that have more of a bus trip feel. Besides a seat, you got real service with your ticket when I worked for Eastern.

And that’s that. I set out to learn more about my parents’ ties to aviation, from their careers to their favorite (and least favorite) memories, and I’d say I succeeded.

As I mentioned, my mom has a way with words… everything she says and writes allows me to effortlessly envision exactly what she is referring to just like I am right there alongside her in her past.

I knew she would have great things to say about her aviation career and her love of planes, and she most certainly didn’t disappoint. 

Discovering my Aviation Roots: Part 1

I really do think aviation is in my blood. My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 80s and my dad spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. Simply put, planes are near and dear to my family. So I figured, why not learn a little more about my parents’ ties to flying… from how they began their aviation careers to their most exciting (and scariest) memories. 

We’ll start with my dad. As I’m sure is the case for a lot of daughters, my dad is a hero to me. I loved learning more about his past, and I hope you will too.

When and how was your interest in aviation first piqued?

I had zero interest in flight until I was a junior in college at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. One of my friends and I decided to hitchhike from Jackson to Knoxville to see a Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game. We got one ride all the way to Nashville, which was 120 miles, and then stood on the freeway for a couple of hours with no luck. We were right at the exit for the airport, and thought, “What the heck, let’s see how much it costs to fly to Knoxville!” We walked to the terminal and found that a one-way ticket was $18, but with our student discounts it was only $13. That was the first flight for both of us, and I was hooked from that moment on.

What years were you a flight attendant and what was that job like? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was with Eastern from the spring of 1978 until the fall of 1987, when we moved to Minnesota. Of course there were many good memories, especially having come across a long list of well-known personalities, but my biggest thrill was spending a whole day with Ted Williams.

It was during the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike during the Reagan era. As a result of the strike, there were very few qualified controllers, and many flights were cancelled for a number of weeks… maybe months. Because of this, a lot of previous nonstop flights now had multiple stops before reaching their final destination. I was on one such flight from Boston to Atlanta. I had worked that morning, and was “deadheading” back to Atlanta. Fortunately, I was given a first class seat on this three or four leg flight. Ted Williams sat next to me. We talked about everything from baseball to fishing to single malt scotch that day. I recall almost every detail of that flight.

What years were you in the Air Force and what exactly did you do? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was a navigator having completed my many prerequisite schools in the spring of 1973. Briefly, it was off to Loring, Maine until the summer of 1976, flying B-52s.

I had a tour to Guam in G model B-52s and another to Thailand in the D model. After that, I flew C-141s out of McGuire Air Force Base outside of Trenton, N.J. from June 1976 until May 1982. Next was the C-130, first at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga. until Sept. 1987.

Coming up with a favorite memory is really a tough one, but I’m going to go with my first C-141 flight to Europe. I believe it was to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, just outside of London. After years in the B-52, and almost always landing where we took off, it was great to finally get to see the world.

What is your favorite thing about flying?

It has to be the experience of visiting so many countries, and observing the different peoples and their cultures. You cannot learn that from any book.

What is your least favorite thing about flying?

I’m going to say it was the pressure of being in the B-52 during the height of the Cold War. It wasn’t actually flying itself, but rather, the fear of running out to the airplane during an alert drill, not knowing if it was another test, or the start of a nuclear war.

Tell me about the most frightening experience you ever had on an airplane.

That would have to be on a C-141 flight to Greenland sometime around 1978-79. There were multiple mistakes made by the pilots, the loadmaster, and myself. We were going to Thule, Greenland, and after a stop there we were to fly south to Kangerlussuaq Fjord (Danish: Søndre Strømfjord). The weather in Thule was the pits so we tried to land, and after not being able to, we went into a holding pattern.

After a while, it became obvious that we had to press on to Sondrestrom Air Base as an alternative. It was about two hours away, and we had just over 25,000 pounds of fuel. The C-141 burns about 12,000 pounds per hour.

We knew it would be close, so to keep spirits up, we all guessed how much fuel we’d have when we landed. On the ground, fuel is measured by a “dipstick” where the flight engineer walks on the wing, removes the fuel cap, and places the dipstick in.

We landed safely, without flaming out the engines for lack of fuel. I won the guessing game of how much fuel we would have: I said 2,000 pounds (about 12 minutes worth). When the engineer took his reading, he didn’t get anything… it was too low to measure.

Tell me about the most magical and/or amazing experience you ever had on an airplane.

I guess that would be the Ted Williams story I mentioned earlier. I’m certain that experience wasn’t something that many people had – outside of those associated with Ted Williams in baseball.

Do you have a favorite model of airplane? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?

I’d say the C-141. As much as I loved the C-130 and all the missions I flew in it, the C-141 could take you a lot further on a tank of gas, and at faster speeds. The range and cargo capability of the C-141 made it a strategic airlifter, while the C-130 had more “tactical” airlift capabilities. That said, the C-130 could get you into airports (or grass strips) that the C-141 (or any other aircraft) couldn’t even consider.

What do you miss most about your career in aviation?

The people I worked with in each of the aircraft, as well as the relationships I tried to develop with all of our support personnel: maintenance, refuelers, life support, etc.

What is the most drastic change you’ve seen over the years between when you first started your aviation career and today?

That’s an easy one: the overall technology changes that have taken place. When I first started in the B-52, we primarily relied on celestial and radar to get from point A to point B. And while we had external navigation aids like Tacan, VOR, Loran, etc., we weren’t allowed to use any of those on check rides because they wouldn’t be available in a time of war. The only difference between that era and the ancient mariners on the sea was that we had radar!

Then came along Inertia Navigation Systems (INS) followed by all of the satellite based navaids, so the career of the navigator was quickly brought to the point of extinction. There are still navigators around in a lot of military airplanes, but that probably won’t be true for much longer.

I came along at a perfect time. I was able start out “old school” with not much technology, but I also experienced all of the modern technology that would eventually kill my career field. And my timing allowed for a long career… folks who worked much earlier than myself never saw the marvels of GPS, and those that came along 20-30 years later would never get the benefits of having a complete career in the field of navigation.

So there you have it, folks. My dad was spot on when he told me his answers would likely result in more questions on my part, but I loved learning more about his career, especially his time in the Air Force.

I remember spending a lot of time on the Air Force Base here in Minneapolis when I was a little kid, and I remember back then it wasn’t always my favorite place to be. Thinking back on it now, I wish I hadn’t taken those visits for granted, but hindsight is 20/20, right?

I can’t afford to dwell on the past, though. Here I am, nearly 30 years old, and with my love of planes I’ve come to realize just how lucky I am to have someone in my life who can tell me such incredible, special stories about flying.

I love the planes… I just love ’em

fed_ex_annieNote: This was originally posted December 28, 2016 on my personal blog, Life in Scrabble Tiles. It seemed like a fitting way to start things off on The Great Planes. Enjoy.

I consider only one man made “thing” on this earth to be as truly remarkable and awe-inspiring as Mother Nature herself: the airplane.

I try to make it out to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at least once a week to watch my flying “friends.” I pop in my headphones to listen to the MSP tower air traffic control feed, and I sit down and just stare agape, as though I’ve never seen a plane before.

“Taxi via Whiskey to 3-0 left and line up and wait,” one of the controllers will instruct a captain and his first officer. During busier times, they’ll shoot those planes off the runways one after another with seemingly no end in site. And maybe delayed, time-crunched passengers wouldn’t be too thrilled to find out they were about to “line up and wait,” but let me tell you… when I hear that phrase, you can bet your bottom dollar this girl’s happy. Because that means the show’s just starting.

And let me clarify: I love all planes. Whether it’s a little “dink” like a Subair Beechcraft 1900, or a “Big Kahuna” like an Air France Airbus A340… I love them all and am just as excited by each and every one of them. OK, there is one exception: I am obsessed (and I mean obsessed) with the MD-11… specifically UPS and/or Fed Ex MD-11s, there’s just something about that tail engine.

On the days that I’m not lucky enough to find myself out at MSP, I’ll flip on an aviation documentary of some sort or just watch a handful of plane-related YouTube videos (my current favorites being cockpit-view takeoffs — I get chills… CHILLS when they rotate).

And don’t even get me started on my aviation-related decorations and accessories. Between the many planes that sit on my desk at work, the seaplane that hangs from our living room ceiling, the biplane mounted on our bedroom wall… I can’t even keep track anymore. Though I will say that “Big Bo,” my new plush 747, holds a very special place in my heart, as do the propeller earrings my husband Scott gave me for Christmas.

But why planes? Why?

I think it’s safe to say that aviation is in my blood. My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 80s, and my dad spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. And somehow over the years, a love that I now know was there all along, just grew and grew before evolving into this great passion of mine.

As a general rule, our minds tend to “think forward.” And by that I mean, most of us are aware (and appreciative) of all the great things we as humans have been able to do thus far during our time here on earth, making us pretty excited for the future and the possibility it holds. But somehow, every time I see a plane take off, it makes me “excited” by the past. I realize how wondrous a thing it is, even today, to be able to see something so huge, something so heavy, just lift off the ground and actually fly. It makes me excited to think of what a breathtaking moment it must have been for the Wright Brothers to see their “flying machine” live up to its namesake for the first time.

And now, more than a century after Orville and Wilbur’s invention gave rise to aviation as we know it, I’m here to say: don’t let that magic die. There are so many inventions that we take for granted nowadays, some more extraordinary than others; but the plane… I mean, of course it’s “just physics,” but to me, it’s physics in its most majestic form. The fact that lift, gravity, thrust, and drag all work together to carry a tube full of people through the sky from one place to another, is nothing to scoff at.

At any given moment, there are thousands of planes in the air, just over the U.S alone. So whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who rarely takes to the skies, next time you’re in an airplane, or even the next time you look up at the sky and see a contrail, just take a minute to think about how truly miraculous flight really is.

-Annie