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    NASA Smashed a Helicopter and It Was Surprisingly Underwhelming

    Written by

    Lex Berko


    For the crash test, skip to 13:00. Video via NASA

    A helicopter crashed this afternoon in Hampton, Virginia. But not to worry: no one was injured and it wasn’t for real. Engineers at NASA Langley’s Landing and Impact Research (LandIR) Facility purposely dropped the machine and livestreamed it on the internet in order to placate the insatiable gods of all-caps SCIENCE and SAFETY.

    In what the agency called “one of the most complicated and ambitious aircraft crash experiments at NASA Langley in recent memory,” the helicopter drop offered a chance to better understand rotorcraft performance and to ultimately improve the design and environmental friendliness of forthcoming machines.

    The unlucky fuselage, part of a CH-46 Sea Knight provided by the US Navy, was prepped with forty cameras, thirteen dummies, and one Xbox Kinect (for data collection, of course) before being dropped from roughly three stories. While onboard computers managed three hundred and fifty channels of input on the internal mechanics of the crash, external cameras recorded the outside of the hull using a technique called full-field photogrammetry.

    So if you were wondering why the outside of the helicopter resembled a Magic Eye stereogram, that’s why—each black polka dot represented a data point for photogrammetric purposes, which allowed those interested to see exactly how its surfaces buckled from impact.

    The actual drop was relatively uneventful from the vantage point of my computer screen. The fuselage was lifted up by cables around 1:15pm and dangled in the air for about ten minutes. When it was finally released and succumbed to gravity, it plopped on the ground unceremoniously. While I perhaps shouldn't have set my expectations so high and can rationally recognize that this was about data and not entertainment, without the extra variables of gasoline or a set of helicopter blades to increase the Michael Bay-factor, I closed my tab feeling disappointed.

    My Motherboard colleague Daniel Stuckey felt similarly. "It's the least helicopter-like helicopter crash I've ever seen, and what's even more of a bummer? I've spent all morning watching helicopters crash, making snuff GIFs for the occasion":

    Anyway, this is not the first time NASA has smashed a ‘copter and put the footage online. In December 2009 and March 2010, the engineers at Langley crashed the same MD-500—twice. The first time, the helicopter was equipped with a shock absorber that limited damage to the vehicle and dummies inside. No such absorber was utilized for the second test and, as you might imagine, the damage was more substantial. Videos of the latter are online and are only more exciting than today's footage because of the slow-mo clips added later.

    But if you did enjoy today's crash, 2014 looks bright with the promise of more controlled destruction, as we have already been guaranteed a repeat of this year’s test with a similar vehicle and more technology.

    Thumbnail courtesy of NASA Langley/David C. Bowman.
    All GIFs by Daniel Stuckey.