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Fire in the Air

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In-Flight Fire

Definition

A fire which occurs while an aircraft is airborne.

Description

Fire in the air is one of the most hazardous situations that a flight crew can be faced with. Without aggressive intervention by the flight crew, a fire on board an aircraft can lead to the catastrophic loss of that aircraft within a very short space of time. Once a fire has become established, it is unlikely that the crew will be able to extinguish it.

Time is critical

The following table from a UK CAA report in 2002 supports the generally held view that, from the first indication that there is a fire onboard the aircraft, the crew has on average approximately 17 minutes to get the aircraft on the ground.

UK CAA Paper 2002/01, Hidden Fires - Time to Become Non-Survivable (page 6, see Further Reading)

Types

  • Engine Fire. An engine fire is normally detected and contained satisfactorily by the aircraft fire detection and suppression systems. However, in certain circumstances (e.g. an explosive breakup of the turbine), the nature of the fire is such that onboard systems may not be able to contain the fire and it may spread to the wing and/or fuselage. Where an engine fire has been successfully contained, there is still a risk that the fire may reignite and therefore it is still advisable for the crew to land the aircraft as soon as possible and allow fire crews to carry out a visual examination of the engine.
  • Cabin Fire. A fire within the cabin will usually be detected early and be contained by the crew using onboard fire fighting equipment. As with an engine fire, it is still advisable to land the aircraft as soon as possible and carry out a detailed examination of the cause of the fire and any damage.
  • Hidden Fire A hidden fire may be detected by onboard fire detection systems or by the crew or passengers noticing smoke or fumes, a hot spot on a wall or floor, or by unusual electrical malfunctions particularly when the systems are unrelated. This is the most dangerous type of fire for 2 reasons:
    • Hidden fires are difficult to locate and access in order to fight them. The time delay may allow the fire to take hold and do considerable damage to the aircraft.
    • A hidden fire may initially be difficult to confirm and the crew may be slow to initiate an emergency landing. The consequence of such a delay may be that the fire becomes non-survivable before the aircraft has an opportunity to land.

Effects

  • Smoke & Fumes. Smoke can reduce visibility within the aircraft. An electrical fire in an aircraft typically generates a lot of thick white smoke which can render the flight crew blind, unable to see the instruments or see out of the windows. In such circumstances, unless the smoke can be cleared, the crew are unable to control the aircraft. Smoke and fumes from an in-flight fire are likely to be highly toxic and irritating to the eyes and respiratory system. Smoke and fumes may therefore quickly incapacitate the crew unless they take protective action.
  • Heat. Heat from fires will affect aircraft systems and ultimately affect the structural integrity of the aircraft both of which will lead to Loss of Control

Solutions

LAND AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

See the articles In-Flight Fire: Guidance for Flight Crews and In-Flight Fire: Guidance for Controllers.

These, and related articles, do not consider the aspects of aircraft design which reduce the risk of in-flight fires, only the general principles and issues related to the safety of a flight once fire has broken out onboard.

Accidents and Incidents

  • B744, vicinity Dubai UAE, 2010 (On 3 September 2010, a UPS Boeing 747-400 freighter flight crew became aware of a main deck cargo fire 22 minutes after take off from Dubai. An emergency was declared and an air turn back commenced but a rapid build up of smoke on the flight deck made it increasingly difficult to see on the flight deck and to control the aircraft. An unsuccessful attempt to land at Dubai was followed by complete loss of flight control authority due to fire damage and terrain impact followed. The fire was attributed to auto-ignition of undeclared Dangerous Goods originally loaded in Hong Kong.)
  • NIM, vicinity Kandahar Afghanistan, 2006 (On 2 September 2006, a UK Royal Air Force (RAF) Nimrod, engaged in operations over Afghanistan experienced a fuel-fed bomb bay fire shortly after completing air-to-air refuelling. The fire spread and the aircraft exploded in flight before the crew were able to land at Kandahar. The Investigation concluded that the fuel leak had been the result of a series of systemic failures to ensure continued airworthiness of the aircraft type.)
  • CRJ2, en-route, east of Barcelona Spain, 2006 (On 27 July 2006, a Bombardier CRJ200 being operated by Air Nostrum on a scheduled passenger flight from Barcelona to Basel, Switzerland in night VMC, suffered a sudden left hand engine failure and an associated engine fire when passing FL235 some 14 minutes after take off. An air turn back was made with indications of engine fire continuing until just three minutes before landing. An evacuation using the right hand exits was ordered by the Captain as soon as the aircraft had come to a stop and had been promptly actioned with the RFFS in attendance. There were no injuries to the 48 occupants during the evacuation and the only damage was to the affected engine.)
  • DH8B, en route, southwest of Windsor Locks CT USA, 2015 (On 5 June 2015, a DHC8-200 descending towards Bradley experienced an in-flight fire which originated at a windshield terminal block. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful with the electrical power still selected to the circuit. However, the fire eventually stopped and only smoke remained. An emergency evacuation was carried out after landing. The Investigation was unable to establish the way in which the malfunction that caused the fire arose but noted the continuing occurrence of similar events on the aircraft type and five Safety Recommendations were made to Bombardier to address the continuing risk.)

Related Articles

Further Reading

RAeS and Air Pilots

FAA Research Reports