Underwear Bomber Couldn’t Have Brought Down Flight 253, Simulation Suggests
We gave the BBC a hard time this morning for going a little overboard in declaring the Large Hadron Collider a broken-down mess. But here’s something cool: In a new documentary, a team simulated the blast that “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to create on Christmas Day last year. Their finding: Even if he had blown up the bomb successfully, it wouldn’t have been enough to take down flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Dr John Wyatt, an international terrorism and explosives adviser to the UN, replicated the conditions on board the Detroit flight on a decommissioned Boeing 747 at an aircraft graveyard in Gloucestershire, England [BBC News]. Wyatt used the same amount of the explosive pentaerythritol that the bomber carried, about 80 grams, which packs about the punch of a hand grenade. They put it on the same seat and lit off a controlled explosion, which sent a shock wave through the aluminum exterior.
The metal was permanently bowed out, and a handful of rivets were punched out, but no gaping holes appeared. The pressurized air inside the cabin would have slowly leaked out [Discovery News]. Wyatt and his cohorts say that wouldn’t have been life-threatening, and it wouldn’t have brought down the plane. However, the blast would probably have killed the bomber and the person next to him. And things wouldn’t have been all sunshine and roses for the survivors, either. Team member Captain J. Joseph said the noise and the smoke would have been awful, “not to mention the parts of the bodies that were disintegrated as part of the explosion” [BBC News]. Their eardrums could have ruptured, too.
This wasn’t a perfect simulation: Wyatt tested a 747, while the actual bomber flew aboard an Airbus 330. And the conditions inside were normal atmospheric pressure, not the pressurized state of a plane in flight. But Wyatt argues that the Airbus’ stronger composite materials mean it would have fared even better than his test aircraft. As for the pressure? “It’s over so quickly that the difference in pressure wouldn’t make a difference,” said Wyatt. “By the time the shock wave got to the door the pressure would have normalized” [Discovery News].
In Britain, the documentary (called “How Safe Are Our Skies?”) aired on BBC Two. You can still see it on their iPlayer. For those of us here in the United States, the Discovery Channel broadcasts it tomorrow night (Thursday) at 10 PM EST.