It was an important occasion for aviation research, but a bit of a gut-wrenching moment for one aviator.
On Wednesday, for the third time in less than two months, researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, intentionally sent a small aircraft plummeting to the ground in a drop test meant to simulate a severe, but survivable crash.
The aircraft’s former owner, Bill Corbett, was at NASA Langley’s Landing and Impact Research Facility to witness it. So were his wife, daughter and three grandchildren. They all stood rapt as the 1974 Cessna 172 plunged 100 feet, its nose pitched up, tail angled down, then struck a pile of dirt and flipped over with a brutal, tail-snapping crunch.
That crunch was music to the ears of Lisa Mazzuca, NASA’s Search and Rescue mission manager. The Search and Rescue Mission Office, which is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has funded the tests, all three of which will provide valuable data on the Cessna 172’s emergency locator transmitters, called ELTs for short.
That data will, in turn, lead to better guidance on how to install the ELTs so they’re more likely to work after a crash.
[See NASA’s Flickr gallery of images from the drop test]
“It was a pretty severe crash,” said Mazzuca, “That’s the whole idea behind this — severe but survivable. Those two passengers are going to need some help.”
Those words — severe but survivable — were good news for the researchers. But for Corbett, who lives in nearby Poquoson, the drop test had a slightly different tenor.
“The paint job saved the day,” he said, referring to the black dots speckled across the side of the aircraft. “If they had left my paint scheme on there it would’ve been a lot more traumatic.”
Those black dots allow special cameras to capture high-speed video of the aircraft as it hits the ground. The video helps researchers see how crash loads affect the aircraft.
For almost 25 years, Corbett, 63, owned and flew the Cessna 172 as a fish spotter for the commercial fishing industry. Thousands of feet above the Chesapeake Bay, with a bird’s-eye perspective, Corbett would help fishing vessels zero in on their catch.
It was a precision task, one that required Corbett to get the fishermen lined up just so. If he was spot-on, a boat would drop its net and the target school would end up right in the middle of it.
If he wasn’t spot-on — well, let’s just say he wasn’t exactly going to be the hero for the day.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get it right because you’ve got 16 men down below you looking for a paycheck,” he said. “If you miss too many times there’s a fine line between being a hero or a bum.”
When Corbett bought the Cessna in 1989 it was all but new with only about 2,000 hours of flight time on the airframe. By the time he donated it last year, he’d put another 26,000 hours on it.
“This was a good way of life for us. I made a good living in this industry,” said the recent retiree. “This airplane was instrumental in making a good living for me.”
That’s why it was especially tough for Corbett to see it bite the dust. He got the news that NASA was looking for research aircraft through Rick Aviation, a local aviation company based out of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. But when he decided to donate his plane to science, he didn’t realize it would end up in a drop test.
“I figured I could talk y’all into sending it to Mars or something,” he joked.
The timing turned out to be a bit serendipitous for NASA.
“It just sort of fell into our laps,” said Chad Stimson, NASA Langley’s Emergency Locator Transmitter Survivability and Reliability (ELTSAR) technical manager. The ELTSAR team had already acquired planes for the first two tests. “We needed a third and I got a call from Rick Aviation around that time saying, ‘We have a plane owner and pilot here local to the region … he’s looking to sell the airplane and thinks it would be a good test article for you to use.’ ”
Stimson didn’t hesitate to snatch it up.
And Corbett was happy to let his old workhorse go, even if its ultimate fate did turn out to be a hard collision with a pile of dirt. He’s just glad that the end result of the testing will be better, safer aircraft.
“I know it’s going for a good cause,” he said.
A good cause indeed: In the minutes leading up to the drop test, standing just feet away from the aircraft, Stimson put his own philosophical spin on it.
“It’s going off to another stage of its life — airplane heaven,” he said. “But the data will live on.”