Thaw before use!

Consider the following story that is in circulation:

The FAA has a device for testing the strength of windshields on airplanes. They point this thing at the windshield of the aircraft and shoot a dead chicken at about the speed the aircraft normally flies at it. If the windshield doesn't break, it's likely to survive a real collision with a bird during flight.

The British had recently built a new locomotive that could pull a train faster than any before it. They were not sure that its windshield was strong enough so they borrowed the testing device from the FAA, reset it to approximate the maximum speed of the locomotive, loaded in the dead chicken, and fired. The bird went through the windshield, broke the engineer's chair, and made a major dent in the back wall of the engine cab.

They were quite surprised with this result, so they asked the FAA to check the test to see if everything was done correctly. The FAA checked everything and suggested that they might want thaw the chicken first and repeat the test.

Or consider this story:

Physical models are made and tested. A gun was built that would fire eight thawed twenty-four-ounce chickens at the [jet engine] blades in less than a second - a simulation of a bird strike, a test that had been inaugurated with the original RB-211 and had gone badly wrong. (Technicians familiar with such bizarre-sounding tests like to recall that at about the same time a group of American engine-makers forgot to unfreeze their chickens, which tore through their engine like bullets and utterly wrecked it.)

Simon Winchester, "Leviathans of the Sky", The Atlantic Monthly, October 1990

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Only it's American, not British, engineers and it's engines not locomotive windshields this time.

How about this story:

The FAA did however offer to loan the USPA researchers their aircraft/avian collision test cannon. This is a compressed air cannon capable of firing a chicken at speeds sufficient to simulate a midair collision between an aircraft and a flying bird. The device is used by the FAA to test aircraft canopies and engines.

Armed with this high tech chicken cannon, the USPA researchers proceeded to set up the rest of their experimental apparatus. First they built a support frame, from which they suspended a grid of microline [parachute cable]. Next they aligned and adjusted the cannon to hurtle the chicken at the grid at a speed of sixty miles per hour.

Question: would the chicken bounce off the microline as the proponents of the 'get big' approach theorized or would it be sliced into pieces as the 'get small' advocates feared?

Well, they loaded a chicken into the cannon and fired it...

The chicken went through the microline snapping it like rigger's seal thread, tore through the frame of the test device, hurled across the laboratory and lodged itself in the cinder block wall at the far end. Needless to say the researchers were somewhat puzzled by the results, so they took their data back to the FAA and asked them to verify that the cannon was indeed working correctly.

The FAA analyzed the data, informed USPA researchers that the cannon was working correctly, and recommended that they repeat their experiment using a thawed chicken.

Hard to believe, I know, but it must be true, my brother-in-law's aunt wouldn't make up something like this.

It seems that these chicken cannons are pretty dangerous in a novice's hands. Congratulations, you've just heard an urban legend.

So if it is an urban legend, did this ever happen? While urban legends are often based on a germ of truth, it is impossible to tell if this tale is based on a real incident, though I doubt it for reasons given below. Given that this story has been around for years and has so many variations in its details, finding the original incident is unlikely.

Some details of story are obviously true:

Why don't I think this story is true? Every chicken cannon I have found uses compressed gas to propel the chicken to terminal velocity:

The gun has a 60-foot-long barrel and a 10-foot, 3-inch chamber that can be pressurized with air,” Watt said. “To operate the system, the chicken carcass is placed into a balsa wood container called a sabot (French for “shoe”) and loaded into the barrel. Between the barrel and the air chamber is a thin plastic diaphragm, which isolates the sabot from the high pressure air until shot time. “Firing” of the gun is accomplished by rupturing the diaphragm, permitting the air to push the sabot and bird down the launch tube toward the test article, which sits in an outdoor shed area.”

As the sabot and chicken exit the launch tube, a tapered and threaded section strips the sabot away, permitting the bird to continue in flight to the target. The sabot stops before the end of the section.

The use of a sabot is interesting. Without it, it would be difficult to accelerate the chicken to a high speed with compressed gas. Chickens, being irregularly shaped objects, would not form a good enough seal without a sabot. It is difficult to imagine how a frozen chicken could be stuffed into a tube or sabot without someone noticing that the chicken is frozen.

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