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Fiery Cargo Crash Underscores Continuing Unnecessary Vulnerability

On Behalf of | Jan 20, 2022 | Accidents & Incidents, Articles, Briefs, Regulatory & Other Items

The recent crash of a Lufthansa air cargo jet once again points out the vulnerability of all cargo aircraft to fire on the main deck. There is technology available to suppress such fires, but it has not been mandated by regulatory authorities. Aircrews are left with nothing more than a couple hand held fire extinguishers, which won’t work against a fire in an inaccessible part of the cargo deck.

The circumstances of the Lufthansa cash recall similar events in recent years here in the U.S. regarding Federal Express, UPS and ABX cargo jet fires.

The Lufthansa MD-11F, operating as flight LH8460, was inbound to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 27 July from Frankfurt, Germany, with about 80 tons of unspecified freight. The two-man crew reported a fire on board the aircraft and declared an emergency. The aircraft experienced a hard landing shortly before noon, smoke was seen coming from the fuselage, and the airplane was consumed by flames.

The pilot and co-pilot were injured. Extent of injuries and how/when they were suffered remains unknown.

The fire emanated on the main deck, as evidenced by the damage. At this point, it is not believed there was fire in the cargo holds, which are protected by smoke detectors and built-in fire suppression. The main deck is unprotected. A smoke barrier (sort of a “shower curtain” arrangement) is typically deployed between the cargo and the small open area behind the cockpit. If there is a fire, the crew has access to a couple hand held extinguishers. On a two-man crew like the MD-11. using the extinguishers (assuming the fire can be located and accessed by crawling over the palletized and containerized cargo) means one of the crewmen must abandon the cockpit at a time of high workload.

Photographs of the smoldering wreckage strongly suggest an out-of-control fire on the main cargo deck.

This particular airplane formerly was used in passenger service by Alitalia. During typical passenger-to-cargo conversion, fire suppression is not installed on the main deck. Such protection, beyond lavatories, is not required on passenger planes, nor is it required on cargo airplanes.

Yet the risk of fire is greater on cargo airplanes. They carry hazardous/flammable materials, and often there is an incomplete declaration of cargo – so the crew may not even be aware of hazardous cargo on board.

Moreover, cargo airplanes are carrying things like shipments of lithium batteries, which are implicated in various cargo fires and incidents in recent years.

To summarize, this most recent accident involving cargo planes with fire on the main deck, manifests three problems:

  1. The difficulty locating the blaze.
  2. The need for timely and effective application of fire suppressant.
  3. The failure of regulatory authorities to require fire suppression to be built into the main deck of cargo aircraft.

It is noted that restaurants, hospitals, theaters, and other public buildings must have fire detection and suppression covering every square foot. Despite the fact that one cannot abandon an airplane as quickly as a building, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and other international regulatory bodies, do not require similar protection aboard aircraft.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has commented on the lack of FAA action on item #3 above. Since the NTSB has detailed an accredited representative to Saudi authorities investigating this crash, another opportunity will doubtless be presented to once again lament the FAA’s weak to nonexistent fire protection standards.

Of interest, he FAA has not objected to voluntary installation of improved systems addressing issues #1 and #2 above through the supplemental type certification (STC) process.

Having been “burned” by fire in a number of recent incidents and airplane losses, Federal Express (FedEx) has taken it upon itself to develop an onboard Fire Suppression System (FSS); it has received certification from the FAA for installation. What should happen is that the FAA should require this system, or one like it, on all cargo jets. The FAA is entirely too passive on this matter.

There is nothing like prior FedEx disasters to focus the mind.

It should also be mentioned that the FAA Technical Center at Atlantic City, NJ, has not developed anything remotely like the FedEx FSS, calling into question just what has the fire branch at the Technical Center been doing all these years – the vulnerability of main passenger and cargo decks to rampant fire having been known for many years.

The FAA lacks an integrated approach. When a fire in a lavatory trash bin caused the loss of an airliner, the FAA ordered lavatory fire detection (but not suppression). When a fire in a cargo hold caused another passenger plane to crash, smoke detection and fire detection below-decks was ordered. A problem surfaces; the FAA orders a tactical fix. The agency has not taken a strategic approach, and entire sections of the airplane are left unprotected.

The FedEx FSS goes a long way to filling a need the FAA has been loathe to pro-actively address.

To quote from the October 2009 FedEx statement on the FSS:

“In April 2009 FedEx Express [a subsidiary of FedEx Corp.] began installation of the FSS technology on MD-11 freighters, the workhorse of the FedEx international aircraft fleet. Each installation requires approximately 700 man hours and will be completed on the company’s 59 MD-11 aircraft in early 2011. FedEx also plans to install the FSS technology on new Boeing 777 Freighters, which begin international service in the company’s fleet in early 2010. In all, 74 FedEx wide-body planes used for international, over-water flights will be upgraded with the technology.

How the FedEx FSS Works

“The FSS features a network of infrared thermal sensors, foaming-agent generators and an overhead cargo-container injector. If heat is detected by the sensors, the fire suppression technology located above each cargo container is activated, simultaneously alerting crew members. The metal container is pierced by an injector apparatus and filled with an argon-based biodegradable and non-corrosive fire-suppression foam that controls and extinguishes the fire in minutes. Cargo in other containers is unaffected by the system’s activation, and the foam has only minimal impact on packages housed within the container. For palletized freight, a special fire-retardant blanket is used to cover the cargo; it restricts the level of oxygen around freight, effectively serving as a fire suppression tool.

“In extensive testing, including the certification process, the FedEx FSS proved quick and effective on classes of fires, demonstrating its capability of protecting aircraft, crew and customer shipments from fires started by:

— Ordinary materials such as paper or lumber (Class A).

— Flammable or combustible liquids such as gasoline or kerosene (Class B).

— Combustible metals such as lithium, magnesium titanium, potassium and sodium which burn at extremely high temperatures (Class D).

“No other aircraft fire-safety system in use today is effective against Class D fires. Shipments that are subject to what would be considered Class C fires, electrical equipment, for example, will continue to be carried separately in the aircraft’s lower belly compartment, and are safeguarded with the industry-standard halon bottle system.

How FedEx FSS Enhances Air Safety

“A majority of fire-safety systems in use onboard aircraft require manual activation by a crew member. In addition, many systems only address fires that could potentially occur in containers cargo that must be declared and labeled by shippers as being Dangerous Goods. Yet most fires originate from undeclared Dangerous Goods, posing additional challenges to existing fire-suppression systems [e.g. hand-held fire extinguishers]. Because of its unique over-head design and automatic activation, the FedEx FSS technology overcomes this challenge by suppressing fires contained within any cargo container or pallet on the main flight deck.

“In addition, current FAA regulations require that aircraft depressurize, divert to the closest airport and land immediately after any in-flight fire situation [in part, this guidance results from man deck nakedness in the face of fire, a situation abetted by the FAA]. This means that the flight crew has about 30 minutes to safely land the aircraft. With the new FedEx safety system, aircraft on lengthy international flights, which can be up to three hours from land’ are able to safety divert and land.

“ ‘Our new in-flight system has pushed the industry safety standard to a new level,’ said [Joel] Murdoch [managing director, FedEx Strategic Projects]. “With the FedEx technology, our pilots have more time to review and assess an in-air situation, further ensuring their safety,    and the safety of their plane and cargo.’ ”

It’s a fair bet that Lufthansa will now be looking at the FedEx FSS, having lost an airplane under circumstances the FSS was designed specifically to control.

A PowerPoint presentation by FedEx Strategic Projects provides additional information about the rationale behind the FSS and its functioning. Some of those slides are presented below: