‘Curiosity’: Documenting a Planned Plane Crash

In a remote stretch of the Mexican desert, a Boeing 727 hurtles towards the ground a deadly speed. But the scene isn’t what you think. The cabin crew is not working their yokes and instruments feverishly to save the airplane, because there is no cabin crew. The passengers are not in mortal peril, scrawling final messages to loved ones on air sickness bag or praying for last-second miraculous deliverance, because there are no human passengers.

One of the most complex, audacious, and undoubtedly expensive experiments in aviation history is the focus of the second season premiere of Curiosity, Discovery’s celebrity-hosted scientific inquiry documentary program. Entitled, with a distinct lack of subtlety, “Plane Crash,” the feature-length episode details the efforts of an international team of scientists, engineers, crisis experts, and pilots to crash a jetliner “successfully” — under controlled conditions — to measure various factors that could inform airline safety practices for years to come.

Planned for four years, the experiment is described here by actor Josh Charles, and comprises more than a few twists in the paths and wrenches in the gears. Frequent reference is made to the experiment’s precursor, the Controlled Impact Demonstration staged by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration in 1984, during which a Boeing 720 was flown into the ground via remote control. Miscalculations and patchy remote control caused the plane to impact earlier than intended, leading to a fiery, destructive crash that obliterated most of the data the testers had hoped to collect from the exercise.

Curiosity’s crash experiment sets out to avoid what Charles’ narration flatly calls NASA’s failure. Basically, a Boeing 727 will be outfitted internally with everything from low-tech crash dummies to minutely triggered computers to gauge impact forces. The plane will fly as far as possible by experienced test pilots, who then hand over dominion of the enormous jet to the remote control experts following closely in a Cessna (yes, really) before parachuting out at the last possible moment. The remote controllers go on to maintain as level an attitude as possible before pulling away themselves and allowing the mayhem to ensue as safely as can be achieved.

This is terrific material for a television science documentary, melding the no-nonsense professionalism of men used to dangerous tasks with epic logistical challenges and the visceral appeal of the spectacular impact itself. That the actual final televised product does not live up to the project’s considerable promise appears a function of a handful of factors.

For one, none of the participating parties really stands out. Everyone is intelligent, dedicated, and on task; in other words, they’re all a bit dull. Even a test pilot named JimBob and a lead remote control technician who rigs the joystick box of a toy model airplane to fly a full-sized passenger plane don’t impart much character to the proceedings. A rather square nickname granted to the crash plane (“Big Flo”) is mildly amusing, but only just. Furthermore, while the likely consequences that would follow from a successful test are discussed in broad, industry-wide terms, the specific application of these crash data is not elucidated in detail.

Still, as “Plane Crash” settles into its jargon-dotted storytelling groove, it is absorbing enough. Unexpected obstacles present themselves at nearly every turn, particularly with regard to the slightly mad plan revolving around the remote-controlled chase plane (the Cessna is too slow to keep up with the jet, and a faster replacement proves less than reliable). And the show explores some unexpected logistical elements with admirable depth, such as the speedy retrieval of the parachuted crew from the vast desert.

Finally, of course, there’s a visually fantastic and comfortingly safe aviation smash-up to look forward to, and the story structure takes full advantage of this obvious selling point. “Plane Crash” opens with a tease of the experiment’s conclusion before backtracking to its beginning, a classic narrative device that transfers nicely into the science documentary. The impact itself is repeated from multiple angles multiple times, as every element of it is scrutinized; one cannot feel that the subject has not been well covered. This episode of Curiosity reintroduces the series with a sense of serious, comprehensive service to the grand duties of scientific endeavor and public safety.

RATING 6 / 10