Discovery Channel's series "Curiosity" has explored questions such as "Did God create the universe?" and "Why is sex fun?" But for the show's second season premiere, they're getting a little more eye-catching: They crashed a passenger jet in the Mexican desert.
The experiment was designed to collect data on the impact of plane crashes on passengers in an attempt to improve onboard safety (and increase the chances that people possibly will be able to walk away from an airline crash), but it also works nicely as TV spectacle. For the first time, Discovery is capturing on camera what a plane crash looks like from inside the cabin.
According to executive producer Howard Swartz, the idea of crashing the plane had been in the planning stages with the production company, Dragonfly Film and Television Productions, for four years before coming to Discovery, and an additional six months of prep work once the cable channel decided to undertake the project.
"We thought the idea was bold and ambitious, but it was potentially very dangerous," Swartz said. "We wanted to make sure it was totally buttoned-up so we didn't needlessly risk lives unless this was going to be a valid scientific undertaking."
The result is an unmanned 727 crashing in the desert south of Mexicali, Mexico, captured by 19 cameras positioned inside the plane and 2 on helicopters outside. The pilots parachuted from the plane in advance of the crash and left it to be controlled by remote — the same kind of remote used to guide model planes.
The Boeing 727, which was picked up for the bargain price of $450,000 (their usual selling price is in the millions), was taken to a closed-off, three-mile section of the desert away from any civilization and only a single, rarely trafficked road, which was shut down. Meaning that the "Curiosity" team was able to conduct the experiment for considerably cheaper than the only previous experiment of this kind, conducted by NASA in 1984, which resulted in the plane catching fire.
The experiment team consisted of Dr. Cindy Bir, a professor of biomedical engineering at Wayne State University; Dr. Tom Barth, an accident investigator and biomechanics engineer on the National Transportation Safety Board; and several hundred others, including a flight crew, rescue team and Mexican military securing the perimeter of the crash zone.
The Mexican government granted the production team a limited-term license to conduct the crash, which nearly expired.
"We took that to the 12th hour on the last day to pull that off," Swartz said.
But crashing the plane was only the beginning. As Swartz points out, the team had just two days to clean up the mess it made.
Further episodes of "Curiosity" this season will feature dives into the waters of the Bermuda Triangle and an episode about mummification which features a man with terminal cancer who agrees to be mummified after his death.
The plane crash episode of "Curiosity" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.