'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.
issues of concern fall into three areas:
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
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."