Physics: Bloody Idiotic, As You Chaps Might Say

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, May 1997

Physics: Bloody Idiotic, As You Chaps Might Say

The (possibly apocryphal) tale of British Rail's chicken cannon misadventure
By Shane Dubow

By now, anyone who's gone on-line knows the Internet is great at hatching all manner of urban myths. But few are as, well, smashing as the following posting, which has begun to make its way into much-forwarded E-mail, printed journals such as Inside the Pentagon, and even a number of recent speeches delivered by Army General Wesley Clark, head of the U.S. Southern Command. It seems the FAA owns a device, known as a chicken cannon, used for testing the impact-resistance of airplane windshields. Basically, it's a big gun that fires a dead bird at a plane.

In need of such a device, the story goes, British Rail borrowed the cannon to test the safety of a new high-speed train. Boom went the gun. Crash went the bird-through the train's windshield, off the engineer's chair, and into the back wall of the cab, where it stuck, imbedded. Stunned, the Brits asked the FAA to recheck the test. The American agency did so, and had one recommendation: "Use a thawed chicken."

But did it really happen? Though it's circulated more widely than invitations to crash in the Lincoln Bedroom, the story proved tough to trace to its inception, British Rail having demerged into 26 regional companies last year. "It's probably true," says FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. "We did have a chicken cannon. And we may have lent it out. That sort of thing happens all the time."

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