Discovery Channel Crashes Passenger Jet In Mexican Desert For TV Special

By Alex Weprin Comment

One of the biggest draws in television news is disaster coverage. Whenever an awful event happens somewhere around the world, millions of people who may not otherwise watch TV news turn it on and check it out to get the latest information.

The problem of course is that disasters do not happen on a schedule, and when they do, it is not exactly programming that advertisers want to have their brands associated with.

Discovery Channel is trying to change that, by staging a disaster of its own.

Over the weekend the cable channel–along with Britain’s Channel 4 and Germany’s Pro Sieben–deliberately crashed a passenger jet in the Mexican desert (see photo above). The crash was for an upcoming episode of Discovery’s TV series “Curiosity,” an episode that will air later this year.

There were no fatalities or injuries, unless you count cameras and crash test dummies, both of which were loaded inside the Boeing 727. The pilot ejected from the 727 a few minutes before the crash, followed by an operator remotely controlling the jet from a chase plane.

Discovery and its partners are defending the stunt by standing behind the shield of “scientific inquiry,” and while that is certainly a noble goal, the fact that such unprecedented footage may draw millions of eyeballs was likely a bigger motivation than scientific advancement.

Whenever there is a plane crash TV news goes wall to wall with coverage. Usually there is no footage of the crash. In the event there is, it is rarely of any high quality. By crashing the plane in a controlled manner, the footage will provide a view of a crash that has never really been seen, despite decades of movies and TV shows imagining what it looks like.

Because the end result is already known (no injuries, a full cleanup), advertisers that would otherwise be leery may be coaxed into spending their ad dollars on the program.

Discovery is also in the unique position of being able to stage such an event. Normal TV journalism outlets are not supposed to “make” news, but Discovery is not bound by the same rules. Ironically, as noted by Vulture’s Joe Adalian, a similar stunt was nixed by the Fox Network back in the late 90’s. This time Discovery Channel opted to crash the plane first, and announce it later.

Will you watch the special when it airs? Do you think that such a stunt crosses any sort of ethical line? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Full details on the special, below.


A Boeing 727 passenger jet has been deliberately crash-landed in a remote and uninhabited Mexican desert as part of a scientific experiment for an unprecedented international television documentary for Discovery Channel, Channel 4in the UK, plus Pro Sieben in Germany. The pilot ejected the 170-seat aircraft just minutes before the collision after setting it on a crash course, it was then flown remotely from a chase plane. The crash went according to plan and there were no injuries or damage to property.

Rather than carrying passengers, the plane was packed with scientific experiments, including crash test dummies. Dozens of cameras recorded the crash from inside the aircraft, on the ground, in chase planes and even on the ejecting pilot’s helmet. The program is being made by award-winning British production company Dragonfly Film and Television Productions.

The project aims to recreate a serious, but survivable, passenger jet crash landing with a real aircraft in order to allow an international team of experts to study the crashworthiness of the aircraft’s airframe and cabin as well as the impact of crashes on the human body, plus possible means of increasing passenger survivability and evaluating new ‘black box’ crash-recording technology.

The plane was crashed in a remote and unpopulated part of the Sonoran Desert of Baja California, Mexico. The location was chosen after an extensive international search to find a suitable location offering the perfect conditions for this groundbreaking scientific project.

For safety reasons, an exclusion zone at the crash site was manned by security teams, as well as the Mexican military and police. Ahead of the crash, a full safety review of the project was undertaken by the highly-qualified pilots and commanders as well as the Mexican authorities who concluded that it was safe for all concerned.

Following the crash, the aircraft will be salvaged and an extensive environmental clean-up operation is being carried out by a reputable agency with the full co-operation of the Mexican authorities.

“This ground breaking project features an actual crash of a passenger jet and explores the big questions about how to make plane crashes more survivable; it’s the ideal premiere episode for our CURIOSITY series that stirs the imagination of our audience, bravely asking questions and fearlessly seeking answers. This latest production captures that audaciousness perfectly and I can’t wait to share it,” said Eileen O’Neill, Group President of Discovery and TLC Networks.

“For the first time, leading scientists and veteran crash investigators, who have been enthusiastic supporters of this project, witness a plane crash in real time and explore what happens to the airframe and cabin, as well as the effects on the human body during a catastrophe of this magnitude. We hope to provide new information about how to improve the chances of survival while providing scientific results on passenger safety and new technologies, including new ‘black box’ flight data recording systems.”

Executive Producer, Sanjay Singhal, from Dragonfly Film and Television Productions, said: “NASA were the last people to attempt a crash test of a full passenger jet three decades ago. Now, with the improvements in filming and remote control technology we felt that the time was right to do it again. It’s never been safer to fly, but we want to use this as an opportunity to provide scientific data that might help to improve passenger safety in those extremely rare cases when a catastrophic aircraft accident does occur.

“This has been an extraordinary feat of organization, involving up to 300 people on location, including the production team, pilots, experts, risk management, plus local crew, military, fire teams and police. This is the culmination of four years of planning and hard work. We’re particularly grateful to the Mexican authorities for their assistance and support.”

The crash and the results of the accompanying research will be shown later this year in a feature-length documentary on Discovery Channel in the United States, Channel 4 in the UK plus Pro Sieben in Germany. The program is made by award-winning production company Dragonfly Film and Television Productions.