Northwest Airlines Flight 253 would have landed safely even if ‘underpants’ bomb had blown up
A bomb on board a U.S. Christmas Day flight would have failed to bring the plane down even if it had been detonated successfully, a new test explosion suggests.
Photo: A slight bump can be seen on the fuselage above the wing after replica explosives to those allegedly smuggled on Flight 253 were detonated in a test.
A controlled blast on a Boeing 747, using the same explosives that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of smuggling on board, failed to burst the fuselage. It means, had the bomb exploded on December 25, Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit would have successfully landed .
However, experts said the alleged Islamist terrorist and the passenger next to him would have died, while other passengers would have suffered ruptured ear drums.
The controlled experiment was carried out for the BBC Two documentary How safe are our Skies? Detroit Flight 253.
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.
Captain J Joseph, an air accident investigator, and Dr Wyatt both concluded that the quantity of explosive used was nowhere near enough needed to rupture the skin of a passenger plane.
Dr Wyatt told the BBC: ‘If it was a more rigid material then we might have seen a crack or breakthrough but this is actually quite a flexible material. ‘I was extremely impressed by the aircraft structure. It can sustain quite a hefty thump.’
Captain Joseph said: ‘We noticed the aircraft had lost some rivets but no flight controls were compromised and certainly no fuel tanks were breached. ‘I’m very confident that the flight crew could have taken this aeroplane without any incident at all and get it on the ground safely.’ However, the experts said that the death of the suspected bomber and the passenger beside him would have been traumatic for passengers.
Captain 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’. But Captain Joseph said the experiment could help to put air travellers at ease: ‘I think this should be a confidence-builder for passengers.
‘After seeing… how well the aircraft maintained its structural integrity, and obviously the pilot’s capacity to fly the aircraft, it should give them a great deal of confidence.’
For security reasons, they could not go into specific details of blast damage inside the cabin of the test Boeing 747.
Kip Hawley, the former head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said: ‘We can be sure that al Qaeda and others have taken lessons from their failed attempt and this programme allows the public to be privy to some of those lessons.
‘The point that today’s airframes are more resilient than many imagine is a critical point.
‘Governments do very sophisticated testing similar to what Dr Wyatt demonstrated and those results inform security measures you see in airports today.
‘Specifically, it was that kind of testing that led to the decision to allow 100ml of any liquid, carried in a sealed one-litre baggie, to be brought through security.’
Dr Wyatt’s test results are to be shared with governments and aviation security experts around the world.