Damage Tolerance

Damage Tolerance


Damage tolerance, or safety by inspection, was developed as a design philosophy in the 1970s as an improvement on the fail-safe principle for structural deterioration.

The damage tolerance approach is based on the principle that while cracks due to fatigue and corrosion will develop in the aircraft structure, the process can be understood and controlled. A key element is the development of a comprehensive programme of inspections to detect cracks before they can affect flight safety. That is, damage tolerant structures are designed to sustain cracks without catastrophic failure until the damage is detected in scheduled inspections and the damaged part is repaired or replaced.

Unfortunately, history shows that it is an imperfect solution in practice.

Accidents and Incidents

The following events included Damage Tolerance as a contributory factor:

On 20 February 2021, a Boeing 777-200 climbing through 12,500 feet experienced a sudden right engine failure and fire shortly after thrust had been increased before entering airspace where moderate turbulence was expected. Despite actioning the corresponding drills, the fire did not go out until shortly before landing back at Denver. Engine debris fell to the ground over a wide area, fortuitously with only damage and no injuries. The failure was found to have been initiated by the fatigue failure of a single fan blade after required routine inspections had failed to find early-stage evidence of such a risk.

On 12 July 2013 an unoccupied and unpowered Boeing 787-8, remotely parked at London Heathrow after an arrival earlier the same day caught fire. An investigation found that the source of the fire was an uncontained thermal runaway in the lithium-metal battery within an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT). Fifteen Safety Recommendations, all but one to the FAA, were made as a result of the Investigation.

On 7 January 2013, a battery fire on a Japan Air Lines Boeing 787-8 began almost immediately after passengers and crew had left the aircraft after its arrival at Boston on a scheduled passenger flight from Tokyo Narita. The primary structure of the aircraft was undamaged. Investigation found that an internal short circuit within a cell of the APU lithium-ion battery had led to uncontained thermal runaway in the battery leading to the release of smoke and fire. The origin of the malfunction was attributed to system design deficiency and the failure of the type certification process to detect this.

On 26 September 2011, a Boeing 757-200 being operated by United Airlines on a scheduled passenger flight from Chicago to Denver experienced a left engine bird strike during deceleration after landing on runway 35R at destination in normal day visibility. The affected engine ran down as the aircraft cleared the runway and was shut down after a report of smoke being emitted from it. The aircraft was stopped and the remaining engine also shut down prior to a tow to the assigned terminal gate for passenger disembarkation. None of the 185 occupants were injured but the affected engine was severely damaged and there was visible evidence that some debris from it had impacted the aircraft fuselage.

On 10 November 2013 the left engine of a Fairchild SA227 on final approach suddenly ceased to produce any power at approximately 500 feet whilst continuing to operate. The crew did not identify what had happened in time to avoid losing control of the aircraft which then impacted terrain, caught fire and was destroyed. The Investigation found that premature failure of engine components had caused the engine malfunction and noted that some pilots may believe that the Negative Torque Sensing (NTS) System provided for the engines on this aircraft type will always detect high drag conditions arising from power loss.

Related Articles


SKYbrary Partners:

Safety knowledge contributed by: