A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is a "chicken gun" used to test jet engines?

November 28, 1997

Dear Cecil:

Cecil, you are my hero. My ultimate goal in life is to be the polymath you are. My question concerns a mythical "chicken gun" used for testing jet engines. I have heard tales of store-bought poultry being shot out of a gun at 500 mph into a running jet engine to test the engine's mettle should a pigeon or some other fowl have the misfortune to cross paths with a 747. Does this gun exist, and how does it shoot a roasting hen at that speed without said bird disintegrating?

Cecil replies:

One problem with researching this question is that everyone thinks he has to tell you the chicken joke. Seems the French borrowed the chicken gun from an American aircraft company to test the windshields of their high-speed trains. After the first test they called the American engineers and said, "Sacrebleu, ze chicken destroy ze windshield and dent ze back wall! What gives?" Having asked a few questions, the engineers replied, "Next time let the chicken thaw first." Talked to two different guys who swore this really happened. Bet they believe in the $250 Mrs. Fields cookie recipe, too.

One of the main users of the chicken gun (also known as the chicken cannon or turkey gun) is Pratt & Whitney, the jet engine manufacturer. The "chicken ingestion test," as it's called, is one of a series of stress tests required by the Federal Aviation Administration before a new engine design can be certified. The tests take place in a concrete building large enough to enclose an entire jet engine. With the engine operating at full speed, the cannon uses compressed air to shoot chicken carcasses (or sometimes duck or turkey carcasses) into the turbine at 180 mph (not 500 mph). This is the approximate speed a plane would be traveling if it encountered a bird during takeoff or landing, when most such incidents occur. The chickens are bought not from the corner grocery but from a game farm; the engineers apparently figure that for maximum realism they'd better use birds with feathers. Bird disintegration occurs only after the chick hits the fan. If the turbine disintegrates too, or if the engine can't be operated safely for another twenty minutes after impact, the design fails the test.

Other stress tests involve water and ice. The most pyrotechnic test of all requires that dynamite charges be strapped to the compressor blades and detonated while the engine is going full blast. (Needless to say, this is the last test of the day.) If the exploding blades aren't completely contained by the fan case, it's back to the drawing board. Better to have pieces of engine embedded in the concrete walls of the test building than in some poor passenger's skull.

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