Urban Legends

Chicken Cannon

The Legend

A1995 issue of Feathers, the magazine of the California Chicken Inspector's Federation, related the story of a chicken-related test that went seriously awry. The United States Federal Aviation Administration has an interesting way of testing whether a jet engine can withstand an impact from a bird. They load a dead chicken into a cannon and fire it into the running jet engine. If the engine comes out in one piece (and the chicken doesn't) the test is a success.

The British were interested in testing a new supersonic jumbo-jet engine in this way and borrowed one of the compact little chicken cannons from their FAA counterparts in the United States. They set everything up for the test and turned on their expensive new engine at full power. Well, only seconds after the behemoth began running, there was a horrible crash and explosion. The British engineers ran into the concrete testing bunker and found that their multi-million-dollar engine had been reduced to a heap of smoking shrapnel.

A quick review of the wreckage revealed the cause of the disaster -- nobody had bothered to bolt the cannon to the floor and it had been sucked into the engine before it even had a chance to fire.

The chicken, by the way, was fine.

Behind the Legend

There are a great many variations of this legend, including:

  • The engineers meet with disaster when they try to fire the engine at the chicken instead of the chicken at the engine.
  • Foreign engineers misunderstand badly translated instructions and fire a cow instead of a chicken.
  • Chinese engineers are unable to find any engines that fail the test, even the most inexpensively built ones, because they are firing chicken chow mein.
  • Knowing that they shouldn't use a frozen chicken, engineers put the frozen bird in the microwave, but they do it while it is already in the cannon, creating a huge explosion in the kitchen.

None of these are true stories. In fact, variations of this legend date back to at least 1756 and the British invention of an explosive device used to fire fish at the hulls of ships before they are launched. In the original tale, the fish easily pierces the hull of every ship tested, until the American colonist (who brought the device from England) receives a brief note from London in response to his call for help. The note reads simply, "Don't use a sword fish."

As an aside, although "chicken guns" are still in use, the FAA has bowed to vocal protests of bird lovers and no longer uses dead chickens as cannon fodder. Cats that are scheduled for destruction at a local pound are used instead.

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