I read on Wikipedia:

The Controlled Impact Demonstration (or colloquially the Crash In the Desert) was a joint project between NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that intentionally crashed a remotely controlled Boeing 720 aircraft to acquire data and test new technologies to aid passenger and crew survival. The crash required more than four years of preparation by NASA Ames Research Center, Langley Research Center, Dryden Flight Research Center, the FAA, and General Electric. After numerous test runs, the plane was crashed on December 1, 1984. The test went generally according to plan, and produced a spectacular fireball that required more than an hour to extinguish.

This test was conducted to see (amongst other things) if some stuff could temper the flames after the crash. Obviously it couldn't.

It is written:

FAA investigators estimated that 23–25% of the aircraft's full complement of 113 people could have survived the crash. Time from slide-out to complete smoke obscuration for the forward cabin was five seconds; for the aft cabin, it was 20 seconds. Total time to evacuate was 15 and 33 seconds respectively, accounting for the time necessary to reach and open the doors and operate the slide. Investigators labeled their estimate of the ability to escape through dense smoke as "highly speculative".

If I look at the video it seems quite impossible to survive such a crash. But not for the reason critics gave above (the smoke would be too heavy). Of course it is not a crash that results from falling down straight out of the sky. It is more a crash landing. But it looks as if you just can't survive such a crash. But looks can deceive...

How did they arrive at 25%? Are there real-life crash landings that are comparable? There was a huge load of fuel in the plane. Was the test meant to see what happens if a plane has to return right after the start?


In short

The controlled impact demonstration (CID) had two main objectives:

  • To evaluate antimisting kerosene (AMK) effectiveness on containing fuel fire propagation after a landing resulting in damages to fuel tanks and fuel ignition. This was the only initial objective.

  • To evaluate floor and seats behavior during crash (crash-worthiness). This objective was added as the initial objective offered a good opportunity for it.

The landing conditions were designed to damage tanks and ignite fuel. The impact was moderate only as "rhino" horns where installed immediately after at the impact point to make an incision in the fuel tanks and engine:

CID rhino barriers
CID rhino barriers, source F.L. Fulton / NASA

23–25% doesn't tell about how many persons could have survived the crash mechanical effects, but how many could have evacuated before losing consciousness due to smoke, disregarding any impact injury/fatality.

Does that happen in actual accidents? Yes, in the British Airtours Flight 28M, 55 people died in an aircraft stopped on a taxiway with a punctured fuel tank.

Smoke and time for evacuating

When in the middle of a fire, the two deadliest hazards are not flames themselves but smoke and hot air. Smoke by itself brings deadly CO and reduces O2, but also triggers a coughing fit preventing, within a couple of minutes, further O2 extraction, leading to incapacitation.

The conclusion you mention only evaluates the number of persons able to evacuate the aircraft before losing consciousness. Related assumptions are detailed in the report, page 55:

enter image description here

Unfortunately there has been many fatalities during actual evacuation of cabins in fire, due to smoke. In particular there was an accident a few months only after the CID, this accident did happen during the takeoff attempt, the aircraft did not even leave the runway and no damage occurred except a puncture to a tank. Still 55 persons died because of the smoke:

What do we know about the survivability aspects of aircraft accident evacuations and how did the industry learn lessons in this area?

One significant accident that contained lessons for the aviation industry and led to changes occurred in 1985 at Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom.

During take-off, at a speed of approximately 125 knots, the left engine of a B737 suffered an uncontained failure which caused a fuel leak. The leaking fuel ignited and burned directly behind the left engine. The take-off was abandoned and the aircraft exited the runway on the right hand side onto a taxiway, which resulted in the wind directing the fire towards the aft fuselage.

The airport fire service attended the accident site promptly, but within 5 and a half minutes after the aircraft came to a stop, of the 137 passenger and crew onboard, 55 persons had lost their lives.

“The major cause of the fatalities was rapid incapacitation due to the inhalation of the dense toxic/irritant smoke atmosphere within the cabin, aggravated by evacuation delays caused by a forward right door malfunction and restricted access to the exits.

More information on this accident on Wikipedia.

Incidentally this accident also tells us something important about cabin crew members role, training, and effectiveness to help people evacuate the cabin at their own risks. In the Manchester accident, cabin crews, which two members died in the accident, were awarded a Queen's Gallantry Medal along with firefighters. At the time they were officially known as "steward/ess".

Floor and seats behavior

A specific experiment was conducted on the seats, to compare standard seats of that time (-9g forward), and improved ones (-18g forward).

Both FAA and NASA concluded CID was a survivable accident (Summary report, page VII) and in the detailed report (on page 31) that the impact conditions were overall mild (thus preventing to fully compare seat performances).

The test objectives which involved the recording of data pertaining to the airframe structural floor loads and seat occupant responses during impact were met. However, because of the mild impact conditions, the objective to demonstrate the performance between the standard and modified seat designs was not completely satisfied.

Dummy bodies set at various locations in the flight deck and the cabin were severely shaken (as visible in this recording, starting at 1:48), but these accelerations were deemed survivable.

  • $\begingroup$ It was assumed that everybody survived? Well, it is a landing indeed. And I guess you would be alive indeed shortly after the landing. But by the looks only it seems nobody could survive. Maybe next time they should do it with a life-crew and passenger load... To test the prediction...Anyhow, +1 $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @DescheleSchilder: I added some data from actual evacuation, I remember having heard of several deadly evacuations. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Jul 27 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ So smoke is even more deadly than fire? It goes everywhere. The flames are pretty located. Would many people have survived without smoke? If so, cant you better use hydrogen as fuel? Its clean alsi. I mean also ( the dials on my phone are so /#@=%! smal... $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ Hydrogen may burn "purely", but it burns explosively. No survivor in such a case. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Jul 28 at 14:44

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