EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- An unmanned, remote controlled Boeing 720 jetliner will slam into the Mojave Desert Saturday in an unprecedented test of new safety equipment including a fuel additive designed to eliminate fireballs in aircraft accidents.
'Tomorrow, we expect to make history,' Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole told reporters at a pre-crash briefing Friday afternoon.
'We know that crashes don't have to be fatal.'
Other equipment to be tested for crashworthiness in the spectacular staged accident -- the first time a jet plane has been deliberately downed in such an experiment -- includes a variety of seat belts, fire-retardant seats and windows designed to resist burn-through.
The test was also designed to develop new data on how various aircraft components behave under the heavy stresses of a survivable accident.
'This is more than seeing an aircraft fly and crash,' Adm. Don Engen, FAA administrator, said of the test. 'It is an event that is keyed to produce results' -- saving the lives of travelers.
The flashiest test will be of an anti-misting kerosene additive designed to eliminate the danger of fuel exploding and sending a wall of fire into the aircraft cabin.
Such fireballs, common in crashes, engulf the plane and trap and kill passengers who otherwise would have survived the impact.
The most recent such accident occurred last year, when an Air Canada plane made an emergency landing in Cincinnati after fire broke out in a lavatory. The plane came down safely, but the cabin was engulfed in flames and half the 46 people aboard were killed by toxic fumes from burning plastic.
The Controlled Impact Demonstration, the result of two years' planning by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, will cost $11.8 million.
The plane will be flown by remote control from the ground, space agency spokesman Ralph Jackson said.
'This is the first time we've ever impacted one,' he said.
The aircraft will carry a dummy pilot and about 70 dummy passengers wired to instruments and surrounded by on-board cameras.
The 720, a 24-year-old model that typifies narrow-bodied jets now in use like the Boeing 707 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-8, will climb to 2,000 feet and circle Rogers Dry Lake.
Remote controls will then send the aircraft hurtling toward the ground at about 170 mph.
Moments later, the wings will strike a series of obstacles designed to rupture the fuel tanks and create a potential fire situation. The plane is expected to skid to a halt about 1,000 feet from the point of impact.
An Air Force fire team will be on hand to put out any blaze so the experiments inside the plane can be saved.