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NASA drops a helicopter on purpose, for science

NASA conducts a dramatic test of new helicopter safety equipment by dropping a fuselage full of dummies and capturing it all on video.

NASA helicopter drop
This helicopter had a hard landing at a NASA test facility.
Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

We're all familiar with car crash tests. NASA went bigger, much bigger, with a helicopter crash test designed to test new seats and seatbelts.

On Wednesday, the Marine CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter fuselage was filled with crash test dummies, hoisted up 30 feet in the air, and then dropped in a swinging motion. It was traveling at 30 mph when it was released to meet the ground from 30 feet up at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

"We designed this test to simulate a severe but survivable crash under both civilian and military requirements. It was amazingly complicated with all the dummies, cameras, instrumentation and the collaborators, but it went well," NASA lead test engineer Martin Annett said in a statement.

The test was a joint effort between NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the US Navy, and the US Army. Besides testing the safety gear, the agencies are also trying to determine the odds of surviving a similar helicopter crash. The data will be used to help design safer helicopters.

NASA rigged the fuselage up with 40 cameras, both inside and out, as well as on-board computers for data collection. It will take months to sort through the information, but NASA has released a dramatic compilation video of slo-mo footage from the crash test. It looks like a rough landing, but NASA is hailing it as a smashing success.