From Air Safety Week:

While reading this article below, ask yourself these questions:

a.   What's the main cause of inflight fires internal to the fuselage?

b.   What's the major point that's therefore missing from all the sage NTSB admonitions below? Clue: think about a house fire (for that same cause) - and your immediate actions.

Check inside these same grey bars at the end - to see if you're omniscient.

'Immediate and Aggressive' Action Needed to Combat In-Flight Fires.

Aircrews need to take immediate action to combat in-flight fires, and they need better training on the ground in order to be prepared to do so. This is the judgment rendered by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a recent report of shortcomings noted in three recent cases of in-flight fires.

Moreover, deficiencies respecting in-flight firefighting uncovered in a 1983 accident involving a toilet fire on an Air Canada jet that barely made it to an emergency landing in Kentucky remain uncorrected, according to the NTSB missive.

Current training requirements for combating in-flight fires are inadequate, and aircrews need a means of gaining access to the areas behind internal panels where fire may be spreading, the NTSB declared. In this respect, the safety board's recommendations mirror those of Capt. Ken Adams. A safety activist for many years, Capt. Adams participated in the Swissair Flight 111 crash postmortem as lead investigator for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations (IFALPA). The Swissair jet was lost as a consequence of runaway fire in inaccessible areas behind interior panels. In a 1999 paper calling for a new approach to cockpit and cabin fire safety, Capt. Adams suggested "apertures placed strategically throughout the cabin to apply extinguishing agents directly to burning materials hidden from direct access." (See ASW, Nov. 1, 1999).

Basically, the safety board is calling for a firefighting doctrine that bears a strong resemblance to that of the New York Fire Department (FDNY). New York City's firefighters are trained in the doctrine of "aggressive interior attack." Given the density of high-rise buildings in the city, the FDNY trains to combat fires as early and as aggressively as possible in order to contain the conflagration, and to prevent the spread of destruction to adjacent buildings. This doctrine was one of the reasons the FDNY lost so many firefighters in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with airliners on the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The firefighters dispatched to the first tower struck were climbing the stairways up to the fire, per the doctrine of aggressive interior attack, when the building collapsed down upon them.

The New York City firefighting strategy may well apply to airliners. As in a tall building with limited means of egress from the tallest floors, an airliner represents a confined space where the spread of a fire can be deadly.

The safety board's concerns and recommendations were contained in a Jan. 4 letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That communication also expressed the NTSB's concern about the apparent lack of understanding about the use of Halon as a fire extinguishing agent, as evidenced by the reluctance to use Halon because of its presumed ill effects on breathing. In one of the fire events discussed by the NTSB, an available Halon extinguisher was not used as a consequence of the erroneous belief that it "would take away more oxygen from the cabin." The safety board pointed out that Halon concentrations would remain well below acceptable levels, and that the decomposition products of the fire itself - especially carbon monoxide, smoke and heat - create a far greater hazard.

The circumstances surrounding three in-flight fire incidents were presented to illustrate the various points of concern about the state of in-flight firefighting preparedness:

Delta Air Lines [DAL] Flight 2030, MD-88. On Sept. 17, 1999, the airplane returned to its departure field and made an emergency landing and evacuation after several flight attendants reported a sulphurous or "lit match" smell to the flight crew. The source was traced to an orange or red flickering glow beneath the floor vent next to the cabin sidewall. The captain advised against using a Halon extinguisher in the cabin, although one of two available extinguishers was discharged into the floor vent. The source of the fire was determined to be electrical arcing from a static port heater, which ignited the adjacent thermal acoustic insulation blanketing.

AirTran [AAI] Flight 913, DC-9-32. The captain made an emergency landing and evacuation after electrical arcing in the bulkhead area behind the captain's seat ignited interior panels. This Aug. 8, 2000, event was a near-run thing. A flight attendant seated on the forward jumpseat who smelled smoke told investigators when she went to the cockpit she saw smoke "everywhere" and noticed that the crew had donned their oxygen masks. In the forward part of the passenger cabin she saw a considerable amount of electrical "arcing and sparking" as well as "popping noises." She told investigators the Halon fire extinguisher was not used because she "did not see a fire to fight." Airport rescue and firefighting personnel extinguished the fire. The fire and heat substantially damaged the airplane.

American Airlines [AMR] Flight 1683, DC-9-82. Shortly after takeoff Nov 29, 2000, from Washington's Reagan National Airport, lightning struck the aircraft. The energy traveled from the tailcone through wires behind the ceiling panels to arc at a fluorescent light. The flight attendants reported a flash of light and a boom, followed by white smoke coming into the cabin (see ASW, Jan. 1, 2001). Unable to see flames, but with the smoke thickening, a passenger used a knife to cut a hole in a heat-blistered area of the ceiling panel, into which a bottle of Halon was discharged. Flight Attendant Theresa Dunn told investigators that if the fire had worsened the outcome could have been "catastrophic." As it was, the aircraft made a successful emergency landing at Dulles International Airport and none of the 66 passengers and crew was injured.

It should be noted that in the current security environment, the passenger's knife would have been confiscated before boarding. The crash axe in the cockpit was available, but in a smoke-filled situation, it may not be accessible.

The safety board has identified common threads to these incidents, and to the 1983 fire on the Air Canada jet, in which 23 passengers (of the 46 passengers and crew on board) were unable to evacuate after the airplane's emergency landing. The airplane was destroyed by fire.

The issues of concern fall into three areas:

1. Training. Firefighting training typically involves an open flame that requires little effort to extinguish. This artificiality can lead to a false sense of preparedness, and a failure to appreciate the need for "immediate aggressive action."

"In-flight fires on commercial airplanes can present themselves not as visible, localized flames, but in less obvious ways, such as smoke or heat from hidden locations," the board said.

"Current training programs do not adequately prepare crewmembers to fight the type of hidden in-flight fires likely to occur on airplanes," the safety board concluded, recommending the FAA issue stronger and more specific guidance on the need for "realistic scenarios" for locating and fighting hidden fires. Instead of a simple "one-time emergency drill" during initial training, the board urged actual firefighting drills for recurrent training as well, featuring a scenario requiring trainees to recognize the signs, locate and fight fires that cannot be seen directly.

This is the second time in a year that a major accident investigating body has declared that fire in concealed spaces represents a significant threat. The UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) expressed its concerns about fires in concealed spaces following its investigation of an electrical fire in the electronics and equipment (E & E) bay of a United Airlines [UAL] B767 (see ASW, Dec. 11, 2000 and Jan. 1, 2001).

In addition, the board noted that employees only have to fight a fire once, during initial training. Instead of this benign "one-time emergency drill," the board recommends initial and recurrent training where trainees would have to recognize the initial signs of a fire and fight one that is hidden.

2. Access to areas behind interior panels. The safety board urged the FAA to "evaluate the feasibility of equipping interior panels of new and existing airplanes with ports, access panels, or some other means to apply extinguishing agent behind interior panels." (Emphasis added, as this call could involve a considerable retrofit or panel-modification effort during heavy maintenance visits.)

3. Halon's effectiveness. Although Halon has been described as "God's gift to firefighting," in large measure because it is three times more effective by weight than CO2 extinguishers, the safety board noted that in two of the three recent cases it examined, "Crewmembers hesitated to use Halon extinguishers." This reluctance seemed to involve a misplaced concern about Halon's potential negative effect on passengers. The safety board urged the FAA to better explain Halon's properties to all in the industry and to "emphasize that the potential harmful effects on passengers and crew are negligible compared to the safety benefits achieved by fighting in-flight fires aggressively."

And that last word captures the board's essential message. The word "aggressive" and the phrase "immediate and aggressive" appear four times in the board's letter urging an invigorated approach to aircraft firefighting training and doctrine.

Delay Can Be Deadly "The Safety Board is concerned that as a result of limited training, crewmembers may fail to take immediate and aggressive action in locating and fighting in-flight fires ... In the Delta flight 2030 incident, the flight attendant asked for the captain's permission before discharging a fire extinguisher. This delayed an immediate firefighting response. Further, if the captain's order not to use the fire extinguisher had been carried out, the fire likely would have progressed and could have resulted in death or serious injury, as well as possible loss of the airplane.

"In the AirTran flight 913 accident, flight attendants made no effort to locate the source of the smoke or to use any of the firefighting equipment available to them.

"In the American flight 1683 incident, a flight attendant, working with a passenger, successfully extinguished a fire by cutting a hole in the overhead panel and applying extinguishing agent. Although this action was successful, the Board notes that the flight attendant took the action on her own initiative, not because she was trained to do so.

"In the Air Canada accident, flight attendants did not apply extinguishing agent directly to the flames, either because they had not been trained to do so or because they could not access the area behind the interior panels."

Source: NTSB

The Missing Link.   The main cause of in-fuselage fires is electrical. If I have an electrical fire, the first thing I'm going to do is turn off the electrics. Granted that you can only presently do that in an airliner to a limited extent with respect to the visibility, weather, day-night, precipitation and the need to navigate and communicate. However reflect upon the fact that, as far as wiring goes, you just don't have effective reliable redundancy. Hydraulic systems come in threes but wiring is bundled together and is further collected to pass through bulkheads. A normally dormant, integral and standalone Virgin Bus containing all the get-you-home items - well, that would be nice to have. Switching quickly to that option might just mean that long and deadly time-consuming trouble-shooting checklists and dicing with death in the rush to land overweight in a strange place - they may all become a thing of the past.


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