standards urged in Swissair crash report
Analysts cheer recommendation to beef
up tests on plane wiring
By Brian Underhill / Ottawa Bureau
Tom Hanson / The Canadian Press
Vic Gerden, lead investigator in the Swissair
crash investigation, reads his statement while
Benoit Bouchard, chairman of the Transportation
Safety Board of Canada, listens at a news
conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.
Ottawa - Regulators should require more stringent
testing of electrical wiring used in aircraft,
investigators of the crash of Swissair Flight 111 said
That was one of three recommendations contained in a
report released Tuesday by the Transportation Safety
Board officials also want tougher flammability
standards for materials used in pressurized areas of
aircraft and an evaluation of air conditioning and cockpit
oxygen systems to determine if they can aggravate a fire
already in progress.
The recommendations are aimed at reducing the risk of
inflight fires like the one that caused the deadly plane
crash, which occurred Sept. 2, 1998, off Peggys Cove.
"Our purpose in issuing these recommendations now
is to enhance the safety of the travelling public as
quickly as possible," board chairman Benoit Bouchard
"Today, we wish to draw attention to a number of
safety deficiencies related to flammability, the tendency
of certain materials used in the construction of aircraft
to cause or sustain an inflight fire," said Mr.
Bouchard, who also announced he's resigning from his post
after five years.
Tuesday's report, particularly the recommendation
dealing with testing of wiring, was welcome news to one of
the aviation industry's most vocal critics.
"That's a giant leap for humankind," said Ed
Block, a Philadelphia wiring expert with the International
Aviation Safety Association.
"That's the igniter. That's the genesis of all the
problems you're going to encounter in the air."
Investigators expect to complete their investigation of
the crash, which killed all 229 people aboard, next year.
Pilots reported smoke in the cockpit about 53 minutes
after Flight 111 left New York en route to Geneva. The
plane's electrical systems began failing about 15 minutes
later, and the jet plunged into the Atlantic Ocean six
minutes after that.
Over two million pieces of the plane have been brought
up from the ocean floor during the investigation, which
has cost $52 million so far.
Investigators have found extensive fire damage above
the ceiling in the front section of the aircraft. While
the origin of the fire has not been determined, Mr.
Bouchard said investigators know that the fire could have
been ignited by an electrical arc from a wire.
"But a fire has many parts," he said.
"It needs an ignition source. It needs material to
burn. It needs a flow of fresh air to feed it. Each of
these elements needs to be addressed, and today's
recommendations speak to several of them."
Vic Gerden, the board's lead investigator in the
Swissair case, said tests are being carried out on 20
burnt wires - measuring anywhere from a few centimetres to
about a metre - that were damaged by electrical arcs
between wires on the doomed MD-11.
But he said it is extremely difficult to determine if
the arcing occurred before or during the fire.
He expects to get those test results in the next week
or so, but noted they may not provide conclusive answers.
Mr. Gerden, who said that over 6,500 pieces of the
plane were fire-damaged, also said there is still some
material to be tested in an effort to determine how the
fire developed and how fast it spread.
"The analysis of how these materials, either alone
or in concert, have contributed to the progress of the
fire . . . is pretty complex, and it is ongoing," he
told reporters Tuesday.
Mr. Gerden said the objective of the probe is not
simply to find the origin of the fire because that is
"just one link in that chain of events that led to
"An airplane should not crash as a result of one
Mr. Block has been fighting for safer aircraft wiring
for years. He co-authored a report, released earlier this
month, that looked at aviation incidents around the world
over the last three decades.
Mr. Block praised the safety board for recommending
tougher tests that he says are long overdue. But real
change will depend on whether regulatory agencies such as
the powerful Federal Aviation Administration in the United
States turn the recommendations into new rules.
"This is an issue that is being addressed with
research that the FAA started, and more will be done over
the next few years," FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.
Transport Minister David Collenette also noted that
recommendations like those made Tuesday will require
international co-operation among regulators, manufacturers
and the airline industry.
"The (board's) recommendations involve very
complex issues that cannot be resolved overnight," he
His department has taken a lead in encouraging
authorities like the FAA and European Joint Aviation
Authority to develop a plan to address issues like
material flammability and wiring properties, he said.
Tuesday was the third time
the board has made safety recommendations in the course of
the investigation, with previous reports focusing on
issues ranging from aircraft wiring to flight recorders,
thermal acoustic insulation, map-lights, inflight
fire-fighting equipment and emergency procedures.
Previous recommendations include:
- Cockpit wiring on all MD-11s should be inspected.
- Flight recorders should have independent power
sources and the capacity to record up to two hours rather
than 30 minutes.
- Use of metallized Mylar blanket insulation, found to
be flammable, should be reduced or eliminated.
- The airline industry should fully review
fire-fighting capabilities and improve fire suppression
and detection equipment on planes.