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October 11, 2003

Retired jet to carry the flame for

fire-safety research

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI Staff Writer, (609) 272-7258, E-Mail

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - An old Boeing 727 cargo jet is making its final journey today, but it will never leave the ground.

Its wings have already been plucked off in preparation for a two-mile crawl that, interestingly, will take hours to complete and be far more challenging than any flight to a faraway land.

The plane's final resting place is a Federal Aviation Administration research facility, where it will be set ablaze as part of a national fire-safety program aimed at preventing disasters such as Swissair Flight 111 from ever happening again.

To move the big jet to the fire facility, officials at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center have devised an elaborate plan that includes a 75-person workforce, 24 emergency backup generators and more than 100 tons of rocks.

"The logistics have been very, very interesting," said Donald Campbell, the FAA project manager overseeing the move.

An array of overhead electric, telecommunications and fiber-optic lines serving the entire Technical Center complex have been taken down to make room for the jet and its 34-foot-high tail.

Since the utility lines also feed the adjacent Atlantic City International Airport, the airfield lighting systems and aircraft navigation aids will temporarily operate on an alternate power source. The air traffic control tower will run on backup emergency generators until the move is completed.

Other backup generators will be on stand-by in case the alternate power source for the airport lights and navigation aids should fail - a situation that Campbell said is remote.

Telecommunications and fiber-optic lines have been temporarily buried in concrete-covered trenches to protect them from being crushed by the 100,000-pound plane as it inches along the road under tow. More than 100 tons of rocks were placed along the route to prevent the jet from sinking into soft soil.

The move is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. today and should be completed by the early afternoon, barring any last-minute glitches. The operation will cost an estimated $150,000, or three times more than what the FAA paid to the FedEx freight company to purchase the retired air-cargo plane.

Tim Marker, a project manager for the FAA's fire-safety facility, said the money is well worth it because the jet will provide valuable research data that should save lives.

Beginning next spring, researchers will set small fires in "hidden areas" of the jet, such as the ceiling, behind the sidewalls and underneath the floor. The idea is to develop ways of fighting fires that break out in hard-to-reach areas of an aircraft before they become catastrophic.

"There have been a number of serious accidents in the past few years that have been caused by fires in inaccessible places," Marker said.

The crash of Swissair Flight 111, in which 229 people were killed in 1998, was caused by fire. Fire also played a role in the 1996 disasters involving ValuJet Flight 592 and TWA Flight 800. Those crashes and others have focused more attention on aviation fire safety.

Buried deep within the huge structure of commercial airliners are many potential fire hazards - from frayed wiring to faulty electrical components to overheated compressors, fans or motors.

Researchers hope to develop systems to detect hidden fires and extinguish them faster. For instance, testing on the old Boeing 727 could lead to development of a series of ports or openings within commercial planes that would allow air crews to slip the nozzle of a fire extinguisher into normally inaccessible areas, Marker said.

To e-mail Donald Wittkowski at The Press:

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