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The University of Tennessee’s National Forensic Academy combined the elements of a simulated plane crash, real bomb detonations and a trail of drugs and murder in a training exercise made possible by internationally acclaimed author Patricia Cornwell.

NFA students worked into the afternoon on July 20 at UT’s Forest Research and Education Center in Oak Ridge to piece together parts of a puzzle – a drug deal gone bad and a complicated crime scene – that serves as their final exam.

Cornwell arranged for a helicopter to lift an aircraft fuselage and drop it 150 feet into an open field. Two explosives detonated on the ground – a briefcase bomb on the plane and a simulated suicide bomber. The event drew many observers from the region’s police and fire departments and rescue squads, as well as national media.

NFA staff worked with Josh Wolcott, a graduate assistant in the UT School of Art sculpture program, to create life-like bodies to use in the plane crash and bomb scenario. Using ballistics gel, the school made a mold to produce a life-sized dummy that more closely represents a human than props the NFA has used previously.

“This is a first for our national academy and we are grateful to incorporate the many elements that our students have been studying in this way,” said Mike Sullivan, executive director of the Law Enforcement Innovation Center, which oversees the National Forensic Academy.

“This invaluable experience will provide practical knowledge that our students are very likely to use again in their field,” said Sullivan. “We are incredibly grateful for Ms. Cornwell’s continuing interest in our program and the opportunities her involvement has given us.”

This marks the 12th NFA class to graduate from the national program. Sixteen officers from police departments across the nation took part in the nationally recognized program. For more information about the NFA, please visit