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Episode 37: Escape Slide Parachute and Explosive Decapitation

  • Using a life raft to survive a fall from an airplane: mythbusted
  • Using an escape slide to survive a fall from an airplane: mythbusted (although you could survive using the escape slide as a parachute, you would never get it out of the plane)
  • Surviving a fall in an airplane in the tailsection: plausible (it really happened, but they could not replicate)
  • Haircream can lead to explosive decapitation: mythbusted (it can cause aggressive fire in an oxygen-rich environment, but it won't 'decapitate)

Escape Slide Parachute

Myth: You can survive a fall from an airplane by using an escape slide or a life raft as a parachute

This myth is most famously portrayed in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Indiana Jones jumps out of an airplane with an escape raft, inflates mid-air, and lands on a snowy mountain slope.

Drop setup

They used the "Big Dawg" Sikorsky S-58 to lift Buster to a 2000ft drop height, which was high enough because you reach terminal velocity after 14 seconds of free fall. Buster was setup with several instruments including an accelerometer in head, a velocity meter that uses air pressure, frangible bones, and shock meters.

Drop 1

For the first drop they rigged Buster in center of the raft, which turned out to be a bad job. The rigging gave way after they had lifted the raft 400 ft up, ejecting Buster from the raft. Buster was completely destroyed and Adam reacted in shock to the carnage: "Buster is a pile of scrap."

Drop 2

They improved the rigging in the raft by using big hauling straps instead. Somehow they managed to resurrect Buster. They must have had a lot of spare parts on hand because even the instruments were pretty trashed from the first mishap.

The raft flipped over and floated in like a parachute at 22mph. Parachutists usually land at about 14mph. This might have been fine for Buster, except he was ejected when the raft flipped over and landed at 154 MPH.

Drop 3

For the third drop they decided to re-rig the raft to be used as a parachute to keep Buster from falling separately. They managed to resurrect Buster resurrected yet again, though he's headless and looking pretty bad for the wear.

The parachute safely worked as a parachute, but the rate of descent was too fast. Initially they thought Buster was ok, but once they got close they saw that Buster's limbs were pretty wrecked. The chest sensors showed that he might have lived (50g shock watch was broken, but 75 and 100 were not), however, even though Buster might have lived, the notion that someone could have lept out and rigged the parachute-like harness is very unlikely. They had already demonstrated the problems with the Indiana-Jones-style descent, so mythbusted.

(Life raft) busted

DC-10 Escape Slide

With the life raft busted, they turned their attention to using an escape slide as a parachute. After a little bit of playing around with the slide they got to work strapping Buster into the raft. It's clear from the quick montage they had of the rig that Buster is pretty well hosed. The outer silicon skin layer is mostly split apart and held together with what look like large plastic zip ties. Also, his limbs appear to be only partial now -- no hands or feet.

The escape slide wobbled back and forth as it fell, but it never flipped over. It landed with a very soft bounce and, for the first time, Buster looked entirely okay. Not a single frangible bone was broken and the 50, 75, and 100g shock watches were intact. In other words, it was a great ride.

(Escape slide) mythbusted because it would not be possible to actually use the escape slide to jump out of a plane. Either you inflate it and it gets ripped off before you can get in it, or you inflate it inside the plane and can't get it out of the door.

Falling in an airplane, Longest fall without a parachute

Myth: You can survive a 33,000 ft fall inside a DC-9.

This myth isn't a myth as it's based on a true story. On Jan 26, 1972 Flight 364 to Zagreb was blown up by a bomb. Vesna Vulović survived the fall from 33,000 feet strapped into her flight attendant seat in the rear section of the plane. She was seriously injured, but lived. Wikipedia article on Flight 364

To replicate the myth they chopped off the tail section of an actual plane and whittled it down to 3500 pounds so that it could be lifted with the Sikorsky S-58. Buster, or rather what was left of Buster after all the previous dropping, was strapped into the flight attendant's seat.

The fuselage was dropped from a height of 2000 ft (enough for terminal velocity): CRUNCH. The fuselage clocked at 96mph, so it only took off about 30% of the terminal velocity speed. Buster was turned into shrapnel and definitely did not 'survive,' but given the right falling angle things might have been different as the fuselage absorbed some of the fall energy.

(tail section) plausible: they could not replicate it, but given that it did happen it's clear there are circumstances in which it would be survivable.

Exploding Hair Cream

Myth: A pilot of a Canadian F-104 starfighter had his head blown off after putting on his oxygen mask. The reason: his hair cream.


In the early 90s a pilot getting into a jet on an aircraft carrier put on his oxygen mask. The oxygen reacted to his hair cream, blew his helmet off, and gave him third-degree burns.

Apollo 1 incident: Faulty wiring and pure oxygen environment led to the death of the astronauts.

Small-scale test

The setup an "oxygen-rich" blast chamber (they didn't specify the how much oxygen they pumped in) and put an ignitor and hair samples inside:

  • Hair w/o hair cream: no ignition
  • Hair w/ hair cream: caught on fire

Full-scale test setup

They resued the Sharammer from the Jaws Special as their makeshift XMB 'jet'. Kari made some toupees from barbershop hair to go on the ballistics gel head and they tracked down both an authentic ear F-104 helmet as well as an air-tight MiG helmet to test with. For the ignition source, plan A was a 24V short circuit and plan B was a model rocket ignitor.

Test setup

They setup the fake jet cabin in the parking lot and tried to bring it to 5psi for the test. There was too much air leaking out so they started worrying about their setup. Just as Grant was telling Adam not to walk around the back of the jet the backend of it blew out. "Oh, that side!" Adam managed to get everything sealed up well enough for the test.

F-104 Helmet test (open helmet with oxygen facemask)

For the first test they pressurized the cabin to 5 psi with regular air. The authentic F-104 helmet was placed on the ballistics gel head (lathered up with hair cream) and oxygen was run to the head with a facemask. After 5 minutes of oxygen flow they setoff the short circuit ignitor -- NO explosion.

They switched over to the model rocket ignitor, which sent up smoke from the helmet. Tory triggered a C02 fire extinguisher inside the pressurized cockpit, which sent the pressure in the cockpit up to 10psi and made things dangerous for a bit as the cockpit bled off the high pressure.

End result: gel head was melted to face mask, but no decapitating explosion.

Air-tight MiG helmet

They were still in search of their 'explosive decapitation,' so they switched to a full face, air-tight MiG helmet. They also added a fake Jamie mustache to the head for artistic touch. There was no pressurization because the helmet is sealed, and they used the 24V short circuit to ignite.

There were streams of flame shot out from the helmet, but there was no decapitating force.

Hair care products only

They weren't completely clear on the setup for this myth, but it appeared that for the final test they doused the head and cockpit with lots of hair care products. There was an extended fire the blew off the top of the cockpit, sucked it back down, and then popped it off again.

mythbusted: Hair cream in an oxygen-rich enviornment can cause aggressive fire, but it won't 'decapitate'