NASA Has a History of Crashing Helicopters for Science

In a video reminiscent of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, NASA dropped a 45 ft long Marine CH-46E helicopter fuselage into the dusty ground at NASA’s Langley Research Center. NASA reports that the helicopter, having plummeted from 30 feet in the air, smashed into the ground at 30 mph. This was a simulation of a survivable crash, but the 15 crash-test dummies locked inside did not have a smooth ride. At the conclusion of the video posted by NASA, one almost expects to hear Mythbuster Adam Savage giggle.

Perhaps smashing things does make NASA engineers giggle; they have a history of crashing helicopters and other experimental aerial vehicles. In 2009, the U.S. Army donated an MD-500 helicopter to NASA, according to a NASA press release. What did NASA do with it? They crashed it (“for science”). The initial test had a “deployable energy absorber,” a Kevlar honeycomb design originally intended to cushion space capsules. Miraculously, the helicopter survived the first test relatively intact, thanks to the new technology.

Four months later, NASA explained that it had dropped the helicopter a second time. This time, however, the MD-500 had no honeycomb cushion. As a result, the helicopter was too damaged for further testing. Engineers had recorded over three times the “g” forces compared to the previous test with the cushion. The picture below shows the windscreen shattered and the skids bent. It was destructive testing, indeed.

However, unlike Mythbusters, NASA conducts the tests for more than the wanton destruction and cool video footage. In the 2009 and 2010 tests, NASA was able to demonstrate that the honeycomb cushion designed for space capsules could also increase the survivability of a helicopter crash. It worked so well that they were able to simulate another crash for comparison.

Last week’s crash test of the much larger CH-46E helicopter also provided useful crash data. Unlike the 2009-10 tests, this time NASA crashed the unmodified helicopter first. Although the test already had scientific use as a basis for which to compare a future test of a composite airframe, additional experiments abounded. The Navy, Army and FAA all contributed different crash test dummies. CONAX Florida Corporation DBA Cobham Life Support tested a restraint system in the cockpit. Unlike Mythbusters, NASA now has 350 different instrumentation points to analyze, as well as high speed camera data.

Destructive testing, like NASA’s recent helicopter crash, is not only fun and entertaining, but extremely useful. New technologies, like the honeycomb cushion, can be tested and vetted for future use. The cost, however, is high. Not everyone has the money available to conduct these necessary tests. With NASA facing flat budgets for the next few years, we wonder ‘who will crash our helicopters for us in the future?’

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