If you survive a plane crash but your emergency locator transmitter (ELT) doesn't, it'd be a cruel irony if rescuers never found you. But NASA, of all agencies, has crashed a light airplane to make those devices stronger and better. "It's not obvious to the public what NASA does with search and rescue," says SAR mission manager Lisa Mazzuca, referring to NASA's role in improving aviation safety. She explains that ELTs are supposed to automatically transmit distress signals to satellites after aircraft accidents, so "NASA's here to innovate that technology, which will ultimately improve the probability of a successful rescue." The problem? ELTs often fail "because of inadequate performance specifications."
Which brings us to the crash test. NASA purchased three older Cessna 172s, because it's the most common airframe of all time. (As you'll see, the flex in those early spring landing gears is impressive.) The craft were equipped with four brand new ELTs to test whether they'd deploy automatically and resist fire, shock and vibration. With two crash test dummies inside, the planes made simulated hard landings from a huge gantry at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. The whole thing was captured by 64 channels of sensor data and a whopping 40 cameras inside and outside the plane.
According to early results, only one of the four devices transmitted within 50 seconds of the crash, though the rest did trigger a short time later. NASA will now try to figure out why the ELTs performed that way, and will follow up with further drop tests later this summer. The end goal, of course, is to create new standards for ELTs that manufacturers will need to follow. Anyway, yada yada, we're sure they'll figure it out -- let's just admit that we're here to watch a plane crash, and head straight for the video below.