According to a line uttered by many an old aviator- bold or otherwise- the only time a pilot has too much fuel on board is when the airplane is on fire. You know how older pilots can be; they’ve always got a line for any situation!Another favorite aviation truism describes the three least useful things to a pilot: fuel on the ground- runway behind the airplane- and air above it. All are of no use once a flight begins.The ...

Dave Higdon  |  01st August 2009
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Are you prepared for an aviation peril without parallel?

According to a line uttered by many an old aviator- bold or otherwise- the only time a pilot has too much fuel on board is when the airplane is on fire. You know how older pilots can be; they’ve always got a line for any situation!

Another favorite aviation truism describes the three least useful things to a pilot: fuel on the ground- runway behind the airplane- and air above it. All are of no use once a flight begins.

The terror-inducing in-flight fire blends the two truisms- in a way. First- the pilot suddenly wishes the airplane had the least amount of altitude practical – as in- zero. Second- the pilot hopes the fire and the fuel never meet – otherwise- getting on the ground holds the only true hope for survival. And that takes us back to the ‘useless’ list.

In a nutshell- an in-flight fire rates high among a pilot’s greatest fears. Thankfully- such fires stand among the rarest of incidents- bad though they can be.

According to research into commercial and turbine aircraft- in-flight fires account for well below one-percent of all accidents and incidents. Within that tiny share- though- they tend to either resolve well- or end tragically. Fortunately- steps and materials exist to give the passenger a fighting chance to survive between the emergency declaration and arriving back on the ground.

Early in the United States’ history an early test of the First Amendment resulted in a Supreme Court ruling (roughly paraphrased) as a prohibition on unjustifiably shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The exception- of course- is when fire actually exists.

Alone- the thought of fire makes us shudder because we feel we have so little relative control when such events transpire. Aircraft cabin or crowded theater- the mass movement of humans surging to escape can sweep away the biggest and strongest in a crowd while the smallest and weakest fall victim to the crushing weight of panic-stricken feet.

Put the fire up in an airplane- however- and the scenario changes even if the fear does not. In this environment the crowd - such as it is - likely numbers no more than five- probably less.

Unfortunately- in this environment evacuating and waiting outside calling for help is not an immediate option. In fact- help can’t come to you at all. The crew holds the responsibility for your world- and for getting the aircraft to help. The savvy passenger has options- though- which we’ll explore here. Even non-flight crew owe it to their fellow passengers to work with the crew and take steps to help themselves.

In broad generalizations- in-flight fires tend to fall into one of two major categories: fires that occur in the powerplant system – inside a nacelle or cowl – or in some part of the electrical system inside the airframe. In transport-category aircraft and in aircraft with in-flight inaccessible cargo or luggage space- fire in those areas stands as a third issue. All three broad types present their own deadly threats.

Taking steps against engine and powerplant-system fires falls pretty much entirely on the shoulders of the flight crew. Modern business turbine aircraft must employ fire extinguishing systems controllable from the flight deck; many aircraft sport dual systems for each engine- giving the crew more than one shot at dousing an engine or engine-compartment blaze.

Inside the aircraft- in-flight fires tend to originate from an electrical-system issue and the shift toward ever-more electrical wiring in aircraft has pushed the FAA to stay ahead of development. Chafed wiring in an airliner caused one of the major accidents of this decade- in the form of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada.

Electrical arcing inside a partially full fuel tank was suspected in the explosion of a Boeing 747 off Long Island back in 1996. And further back in 1983- an over-heated motor in the aft lavatory of a Douglas DC-9 started a fire the crew couldn’t extinguish. After a successful emergency landing in Cincinnati- the smoldering fire erupted into a flash fire when the escape doors opened killing half of the passengers on board.

Even though safety authorities have taken steps to mitigate each of these issues after they’ve occurred- electrical fires remain a threat. For example- just this past June 11 a windscreen fire erupted on the flight deck of an Airbus A330 en route to Coolangatta- Australia from Osaka- Japan. The crew diverted to Guam and made a successful emergency landing. It wasn’t the only time smoke and/or fire erupted inside a modern jet- and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Flight crews drill on the procedures for an in-flight fire from the time they first fly as students. Declare an emergency; fight the fire; shut off fuel (if an engine fire) and head to a landing; shut off electrical components (if panel or electrical fire).

The smells of engine and electrical fires are distinct; the smoke that comes from melted insulation or overheated circuits catches your attention even before it’s visible. A cabin fire may be identifiable enough to attack with the on-board fire extinguisher every plane should have. After taking what steps the crew can take- time becomes the issue.

Opening a vent – even if possible in a pressurized aircraft – may do as much to feed a fire as to clear the air of smoke- and is generally not recommended even when possible. Adding air flow can even make the smoke worse.

Cruising high into the Flight Levels- miles above the Earth- and enclosed in a fast-moving missile of a business jet means many minutes to reach the ground and not overstress the aircraft to the point of physical failure. Fire up high also threatens the controlled environment inside the aircraft with contamination capable of overcoming all occupants with fumes or consuming the natural atmospheric oxygen inside.

Beyond these issues you face the fire’s threat to the structural integrity of the airframe- including engine mounts. With aluminum’s low melting point and the physical loads on airfoils and fuselage- a structural failure remains a prospect as long as a fire continues to burn. Not even engine firewalls and containment structures can withstand the ravages of an uncontrolled fire.

Thankfully- between certification requirements- safety systems and human resolve- passengers and pilots enjoy some options for protecting themselves and proactively defending their lives. A happy outcome first depends on the availability of equipment- knowing where to find it- and then knowing how to use it properly.

As mentioned- every aircraft must have a fire extinguisher accessible by crew and passengers. The trick is in knowing how to use it effectively. Today’s modern standard is the Halon fire extinguisher- an element with environmental and safety issues – but that works without further damaging the aircraft or its systems.

Old powder or carbon-dioxide extinguishers could damage expensive electronics and contribute to airframe corrosion; that meant expensive post-incident rehab for an airplane in which one of these bottles was discharged. The chemical agent in dry extinguishers can also be debilitating and harmful to humans inside the confined space of an aircraft cabin.

Halon- which bonds with the oxygen in the air- thus suffocating the flames- poses no such problems; it won’t damage systems or hardware. To use correctly- you first need to know where it’s stored. Passengers who fly on private aircraft- particularly those not staffed by flight attendants- should be taking it upon themselves to know the extinguisher’s location.

From locating the extinguisher- it should be pretty simple: remove the bottle from its bracket and pull the safety pin – without squeezing the discharge handle. Then- with the nozzle of the extinguisher aimed at the base of the flames- squeeze the handle and shoot for a few seconds. If the flame front is wide- move the discharge from side-to-side; the same applies to liquid and electrical fires.

Of course- somewhere in the process the power should be shut off to that electrical area – preferably before using the fire bottle. As long as exposed humans can get air from another source- Halon can be safely used around them. As noted above- though- accessing the pure oxygen of an aircraft’s emergency systems may not be the smartest idea- depending on the fire.

And in a cabin filling with smoke – the particulate and chemical byproducts of the fire’s fuel – oxygen alone may not suffice. Enter the protective breathing device known as a smoke hood.

Smoke hoods- or evacuation hoods- are personal breathing devices that function on several levels. Designed to fit over the entire head and seal around the neck- hoods provide a heat-resistant material for seeing – protecting your eyes from the smoke – and a breathing device that filters the air. Some units may also provide a small amount of oxygen and a scrubber to keep carbon monoxide levels in-check.

Best of all- these devices are relatively inexpensive- small enough to be stored in a briefcase- and typically arrive in their own storage container for transport. Some companies opt to equip their business aircraft with a smoke hood for every seat; the crew should note the presence of smoke hoods on board and point out to passengers where they’re stored.

But there are no prohibitions against passengers owning and carrying their own- even on airliners. Some suggested models to consider follow.

Among the better units we’ve seen is the Safe Escape Smoke Hood. Consisting of a metalized cloth with a rigid frame faceplate- the Safe Escape filters out most of the threatening chemicals in smoke- as well as ash and particulates.

According to Dr. Brent Blue- a physician and pilot- the Safe Escape eliminates carbon monoxide- hydrogen cyanide- hydrogen chloride- acrolein- even anthrax spores. The hood protects the head from hot ash and embers- and can withstand temperatures of up to 1-400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Further the hood is guaranteed to provide breathable air for 30 minutes – long enough to survive the descent time of a business turbine aircraft coming down from the flight levels with smoke in the cabin. A smoke hood such as the Safe Escape can be purchased and carried as part of your personal travel equipment or stored in the aircraft – one for every seat. At well under $100 per head- a smoke hood could make the difference between an unhappy outcome of an in-flight fire and a story for the grandchildren well after the adrenaline wore off.

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Another version is available from that all-purpose aviator’s catalog store- Sporty’s Pilot Shop. With a design similar to the Safe Escape- Sporty’s hood also filters air and provides a breathable atmosphere for up to 30 minutes.

It can be removed from its container- donned and activated in about 20 seconds.

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Aviation Consumer Magazine recommended the Parat C and the Safe Escape hoods in tests performed in 2008. It’s available from Aircraft Spruce & Specialty. The Parat C sports an elastic neck band to make putting on and securing easy and quick. It guarantees a minimum of 15 minutes of breathable air and boasts a self-extinguishing PVC material in the main hood.

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Yet another hood aimed specifically at the flight deck of professionally flown aircraft is the Essex PB&R Pilot Protective Hood. It offers no breathing air or filtration- instead fitting over the emergency pressure mask that’s standard equipment on the flight deck of pressurized aircraft- and protects your eyes from smoke in the cabin.

This design may be more appealing to flight-deck crew or flight attendants who have available their own breathing air source in the aircraft’s emergency oxygen systems.

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It goes without saying that staying alive- only to crash because of vision restrictions fails the test of a successfully handled emergency. So what’s the crew to do? Smoke in the cabin- even if survivable with one of the aforementioned smoke hoods- can grow thick enough to block the pilot’s view through the windscreen.

Some pilots opt for smoke goggles that improve vision through the contaminated air. But even then- the view can be constrained. One relatively new solution is called an Emergency Vision Assurance System- or EVAS.

An EVAS works thus: remove from its book-size package; place on the glare-screen; deploy the inflatable vision unit (IVU) by pulling the activation strip- inflating the two lobes of the IVU- one above and one below the glare-shield forming a clear inflated tunnel that contacts the windscreen- and extends back to beyond the glare-shield.

Then the pilot leans forward- wearing the smokehood of choice and maybe goggles- places the viewing window against the back of the EVAS- and gets a smoke-free view ahead - the whole process takes 15-20 seconds.

The stored EVAS measures about the size of a standard sheet of paper – 8.5 X 10 inches – and is three inches thick; that’s about the same dimensions as a Jeppesen airways manual found in most pilots’ chart bags.

With the arrival of Electronic Flight Bags relieving more and more pilots of the chore of carrying manuals- finding room for at least one EVAS on the flight deck should be easy.

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No pilot ever wants to add a “There I was at FL410 when (fill in the blank) caught fire…” Near misses- dodging migratory waterfowl- edging around Level 5 weather- breaking out at Decision Height after a knuckle-whitening Instrument Approach; those are all bad enough – and sufficiently adrenalin soaked. No- smoke or flames in-flight go beyond that private biggest fear for most aviators.

The best-and-smartest pilots and passengers know they need to prepare for emergencies. With the knowledge- nerve and tools available to crew and passengers alike- the business aircraft flyers of all stripes can greatly improve their own safety margins for that day they hope never comes.


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