Post Crash Fires are fires which occur after an aircraft has crash landed or has impacted obstacles or other aircraft during ground movement, runway incursion, or runway excursion.
In the event of an impact with the ground or an obstacle, which results in structural damage to an aircraft, a fuel and/or oil fed fire can start if fuel comes into contact with ignition sources. Equally, if flammable material, being carried as dangerous goods on a Civil aircraft or as cargo by a military aircraft, is damaged or the containment compromised, it may ignite as a consequence of impact, contact with hot surfaces or, in the case of spillage of unstable chemicals, the atmosphere.
Fire can spread quickly to the fuselage and through the cabin generating heat, smoke, and toxic decomposition products. If the temperature of trapped smoke and gasses reaches the auto-ignition temperature, flashover will occur and an aircraft fuselage can be rapidly engulfed by flames.
Depending upon the severity of the crash, and any resulting fire, the effect on the aircraft can vary from minor damage to total hull loss. Similarly, the potential casualty consequence of a crash/fire event ranges from no injuries to the loss of life of all on board. Collateral damage and casualties are possible dependent upon the location of the crash.
For aircraft with a maximum certified take-off weight of 5700 kilograms or less, post-impact fire contributes significantly to injuries and fatalities in accidents that are otherwise potentially survivable.
- Aircraft Design. Aircraft structures and fuel systems can be designed to minimise the quantity of fuel spillage
- Fuel - Virtually all large passenger aircraft burn jet fuel and not AVGAS. The much higher flashpoint of jet fuel reduces the potential for a post crash fire.
- Preparation of the aircraft - where the crash landing is anticipated, for example if an off-field landing is necessary or the aircraft has a landing gear malfunction, then there are several things that can be done to reduce the probability and severity of a fire:
- Dump Fuel - if time and aircraft design allow, dump to reduce the amount of fuel and improve the handling of the aircraft. For aircraft not fitted with Fuel Dump capability, the aircraft can loiter in the vicinity of the landing airfield to burn gas. Note that, in the case of an onboard fire, smoke, or fumes, any delay to landing the aircraft, inclusive of dumping fuel, should not be considered.
- Isolate fuel systems - close crossfeed valves.
- Cabin - Prepare the cabin for emergency landing.
- Cargo - Jettison flammable cargo if possible and practical.
- Aircraft Evacuation - Expeditious emergency evacuation of the aircraft will minimise the loss of life in the event of a post crash fire. Consequently, robust training of the cabin crew in evacuation procedures is essential.
- Engine Shutdown & Aircraft Systems - To minimize the potential for injury during the evacuation, the flight deck crew will take all necessary actions to shut down and, using fire handles, condition levers, or fire push button (depending on aircraft type) isolate the aircraft engines. Depending upon the degree of damage to the aircraft, this may not always be possible.
- Rescue and Fire Fighting Services - Rescue and Fire Fighting Services (RFFS) are instrumental in saving lives and minimizing the damage from a post crash fire. If the crash occurs within the airfield boundaries, the initial RFFS response units will be on site within a very short period of time; often less than a minute. Response to an off airfield crash may take considerably longer due to the time it may take to locate the crash and to the accessibility of crash site.
Large amounts of fuel can be carried by modern aircraft and an aircraft crash has the potential to rupture the fuel tanks. Should the spilling fuel be exposed to a spark or open flame a fire may occur. This is particularly true of fuels with low flashpoints such as AVGAS. While jet fuels have a higher flashpoint and are less susceptible to sparks, exposing them to operating engines or to hot engine components may raise the temperature of the fuel to its auto-ignition point and a fire will result.
Accidents and Incidents
A selection of incidents from the SKYbrary database related to Post Crash Fire:
On 8 February 2021, an Embraer 500 Phenom 100 (9H-FAM) crew lost control of their aircraft shortly before the intended touchdown when it stalled due to airframe ice contamination. The resulting runway impact collapsed the nose and main gear, the latter causing fuel leak and resultant fire as the aircraft slid along the runway before veering off it. The Investigation found that flight in icing conditions during the approach had not been accompanied by the prescribed use of the airframe de-icing system and that such non compliance appeared to be routine and its dangers unappreciated.
On 15 January 2023, an ATR 72-500 positioning visually for an approach to Pokhara was observed to suddenly depart normal flight and impact terrain a few seconds later. All 72 occupants were killed and the aircraft destroyed by impact. A Preliminary Report published by the Accident Investigation Commission has indicated that a stall warning and subsequent loss of control was preceded by an apparently unintentional and subsequently undetected selection of both propellers to feather in response to a call for Flaps 30. The Training Captain in command was supervising the Captain flying during familiarisation training for the new Pokhara airport.
On 26 December 2019, an Airbus Helicopters AS350 on a commercial sightseeing flight over the Hawaiian island of Kauai impacted terrain and was destroyed killing all seven occupants. The Investigation concluded that the experienced pilot had decided to continue the flight into unexpectedly encountered cloud contrary to Company Policy. Contributory factors were identified as the delayed implementation of a Hawaiian aviation weather camera programme, an absence of regulatory leadership in the development of a weather training program for Hawaiian air tour pilots and an overall lack of effective regulatory monitoring and oversight of Hawaiian air tour operators’ weather-related operating practices.
On 24 February 2016 a DHC6 (9N-AHH) on a VFR flight to Jomsom which had continued towards destination after encountering adverse weather impacted remote rocky terrain at an altitude of almost 11,000 feet approximately 15 minutes after takeoff after intentionally and repeatedly entering cloud in order to reach the destination. The aircraft was destroyed and all on board were killed. The Investigation attributed this to the crew’s repeated decision to fly in cloud and their deviation from the intended route after losing situational awareness. Spatial disorientation followed and they then failed to respond to repeated EGPWS cautions and warnings.
On 31 August 2019, all six occupants of an Airbus AS350 B3 being used for a sightseeing flight in northern Norway were killed after control was suddenly lost and the helicopter impacted the terrain below where the wreckage was immediately consumed by an intense fire. The Investigation found no airworthiness issues which could have led to the accident and concluded that the loss of control had probably been due to servo transparency, a known limitation of the helicopter type. However, it was concluded that it was the absence of a crash-resistant fuel system which had led to the fatalities.
On 7 December 2016, the crew of an ATR 42-500 lost control after airworthiness-related complications followed shutdown of the left engine whilst in the cruise and high speed terrain impact followed. The Investigation concluded that three pre-existing faults with the left engine and its propeller control mechanism had led to a loss of power which had necessitated its shutdown but that these faults had then caused much higher left side drag than would normally result from an engine shutdown and made it progressively more difficult to maintain control. Recovery from a first loss of control was followed by another without recovery.
On 5 August 2019, a Cessa 560XLS touched down in runway undershot at Aarhus whilst making a night ILS approach there and damage sustained when it collided with parts of the ILS LOC antenna caused a fuel leak which after injury-free evacuation of the occupants then ignited destroying most of the aircraft. The Investigation attributed the accident to the Captain’s decision to intentionally fly below the ILS glideslope in order to touch down at the threshold and to the disabling of the EGWPS alerting function in the presence of a steep authority gradient, procedural non-compliance and poor CRM.
On 11 March 2018 an Unreliable Speed Alert occurred on a Bombardier Challenger, the Captain’s airspeed increasing whilst the First Officer’s decreased. The First Officer attempted to commence the corresponding drill but the Captain’s interruptions prevented this and a (false) overspeed warning followed. The Captain’s response to both alerts was to reduce thrust which led to a Stall Warning followed, after no response, by stick pusher activation which was repeatedly opposed by the Captain despite calls to stop from the First Officer. The stalled condition continued for almost five minutes until a 30,000 feet descent was terminated by terrain impact.
On 22 July 2011 an Air France A340-300 en route over the North Atlantic at FL350 in night IMC encountered moderate turbulence following "inappropriate use of the weather radar" which led to an overspeed annunciation followed by the aircraft abruptly pitching up and gaining over 3000 feet in less than a minute before control was regained and it was returned to the cleared level. The Investigation concluded that "the incident was due to inadequate monitoring of the flight parameters, which led to the failure to notice AP disengagement and the level bust, following a reflex action on the controls.”
On 20 August 2011, a First Air Boeing 737-200 making an ILS approach to Resolute Bay struck a hill east of the designated landing runway in IMC and was destroyed. An off-track approach was attributed to the aircraft commander s failure to recognise the effects of his inadvertent interference with the AP ILS capture mode and the subsequent loss of shared situational awareness on the flight deck. The approach was also continued when unstabilised and the Investigation concluded that the poor CRM and SOP compliance demonstrated on the accident flight were representative of a wider problem at the operator.
On 24 January 2005, an Atlas Air Boeing 747-200F overran the end of the landing runway at Düsseldorf after runway braking action notified just prior to landing as medium due to snowfall unexpectedly deteriorated after the snowfall intensified. The overrun led to collision with ground obstacles and engines 2 and 3 caught fire. Escape slide malfunction at the forward left hand door led to an alternative non standard crew evacuation route being used. Significant damage to the aircraft resulted in it being declared a hull loss. The Investigation took almost 8 years to complete and publish.
On 6 July 2013, an Asiana Boeing 777-200 descended below the visual glidepath on short finals at San Francisco after the pilots failed to notice that their actions had reduced thrust to idle. Upon late recognition that the aircraft was too low and slow, they were unable to recover before the aircraft hit the sea wall and the tail detached. Control was lost and the fuselage eventually hit the ground. A few occupants were ejected at impact but most managed to evacuate subsequently and before fire took hold. The Probable Cause of the accident was determined to be the mismanagement of the aircraft by the pilots.
On 4 March 2013, a Beechcraft Premier 1A stalled and crashed soon after take off from Annemasse. The Investigation concluded that the loss of control was attributable to taking off with frozen deposits on the wings which the professional pilot flying the privately-operated aircraft had either not been aware of or had considered insignificant. It was found that the aircraft had been parked outside overnight and that overnight conditions, particularly the presence of a substantial quantity of cold-soaked fuel, had been conducive to the formation of frost and that no airframe de/anti icing facilities had been available at Annemasse.
On 17 July 2007, the commander of a TAM Airlines Airbus A320 being operated with one thrust reverser locked out was unable to stop the aircraft leaving the landing runway at Congonhas at speed and it hit buildings and was destroyed by the impact and fire which followed killing all on board and others on the ground. The investigation attributed the accident to pilot failure to realise that the thrust lever of the engine with the locked out reverser was above idle, which by design then prevented both the deployment of ground spoilers and the activation of the pre-selected autobrake.
On 15 March 2012, a Royal Norwegian Air Force C130J-30 Hercules en route on a positioning transport flight from northern Norway to northern Sweden crossed the border, descended into uncontrolled airspace below MSA and entered IMC. Shortly after levelling at FL 070, it flew into the side of a 6608 foot high mountain. The Investigation concluded that although the direct cause was the actions of the crew, Air Force procedures supporting the operation were deficient. It also found that the ATC service provided had been contrary to regulations and attributed this to inadequate controller training.