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NASA to Drop Former Marine Helicopter to Test New Airframe Design

FILE - A CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopter snatches four Marines off the runway at Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland.

NASA engineers will purposely crash a retired U.S. Marine helicopter, retrofitted with various composite subfloors, to see how well an airframe of that material would protect anyone inside the cabin.

According to the space exploration agency there is growing interest in carbon airframes, but not a lot of safety testing has been done on a full-scale level to determine its crashworthiness.

Wednesday’s experiment at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia will swing a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter fuselage like a pendulum and then drop it from about 10 meters onto the soil below.

The helicopter will hit the ground at about 50 kilometers an hour. The impact condition represents a severe, but survivable, condition under both civilian and military requirements, according to NASA officials.

Inside the former Marine helicopter airframe will be crash test dummies, cameras and accelerometers. Almost 40 cameras inside and outside the helicopter will record how 13 crash test dummies and two manikins react before, during and after impact.

Lead test engineer Martin Annett said, "one of the things that concerns [people] with carbon composites is how crashworthy” they really are. He said this experiment will help to inform future aircraft design work.

A similar crash test was conducted last summer, although the composite material was not used. Officials say this test with a CH-46 Sea Knight is based, in part, on what they learned last year.

According to Annett, "the big difference in this year's experiment is that we are testing three energy absorbing composite subfloor concepts that should help some of the dummy occupants sustain fewer injuries than they did in the first test last August.”

NASA is collaborating with the U.S. Navy, Army and Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the German Aerospace Center and the Australian Cooperative Research Center for Advanced Composite Structures.