Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fire in the Sky

There is no hazard more feared in aviation than an in-flight fire. No other danger is quite so fraught with the combination of helplessness and horrific consequences. Two recent incidents in quick succession have shown once again that when there is fire in the sky, we balance on a knife-edge of fate.
"The only time an aircraft has too much fuel on board is when it is on fire."
-- attributed to Capt. Ernest K. Gann

On Monday morning, the B-17G Liberty Belle departed the Aurora, IL airport. Only a few minutes after takeoff the pilot of the T-6 flying in company with the old bomber notified it's crew that they were on fire. What happened next is recounted by Ray Fowler, the Liberty Foundation's Chief Pilot, on the organization's web site:
"Directly below the B-17 was a farmer’s field and the decision was made to land immediately. Approximately 1 minute and 40 seconds from the radio report of the fire, the B-17 was down safely on the field. Within that 1:40 time frame, the crew shutdown and feathered the number 2 engine, activated the engine’s fire suppression system, lowered the landing gear and performed an on-speed landing. Bringing the B-17 to a quick stop, the crew and passengers quickly and safely exited the aircraft."
Most of the photos of this incident seen in the press depict the airframe completely ravaged by fire, giving the impression of an airplane meeting a violent end. The picture above tells us that this was not a "crash". In fact, Liberty Belle's pilots turned in a superb piece of airmanship getting the big Boeing on the ground, in an emergency, on an unprepared field, with the whole crew able to walk away. If fire apparatus had been able to gain access, the airplane may well have flown again.

But the key here was the rapidity with which the airplane was put on the ground once fire was detected. Fire in the sky gives you no time to waste. There have been far too many in-flight fires where time was either wasted or inadequate and tragedy ensued.

  • ValuJet 592, the DC-9 that crashed in the Everglades in 1996 after a mis-handled shipment of oxygen generators ignited in the cargo compartment.
  • Swissair 111, the MD-11 that crashed in the sea near Nova Scotia in 1998 after a fire started in the entertainment system's wiring. In that case the crew wasted precious time dumping fuel to avoid an overweight landing, allowing the fire to render the aircraft uncontrollable.
  • UPS Flight 6, a 747-400F freighter that crashed in September of last year near Dubai. Fire on the cargo deck created smoke so dense that the crew could no longer see the flight instruments. Shipments of lithium batteries have been implicated in the disaster.
  • The 2007 crash of a NASCAR-owned Cessna 310R in Sanford, FL. The accident (discussed in this blog HERE and HERE) where an electrical fire incapacitated the crew.
In all of these cases, time - never granted in abundance - ultimately ran out. The pilots of Liberty Belle, only minutes away from their departure airport, still made the correct decision. An airplane on fire has to be put on the ground now!

I wish that was the end of the story this week. We could regret the loss of a precious old airplane while rejoicing in the safety of her crew. But, fire in the sky wasn't done with us.

Word was slow coming from across the sea about the loss to fire of a blimp operating in Germany under contract to Goodyear. It's too soon to know the cause of the fire, but its consequences are tragically clear. The pilot got the airship close to the ground and told his three passengers to jump.

The airship pilot, Capt. Mike Nerandzic was a veteran of many years and many thousands of hours of blimp operations. He had to know exactly what would happen when 250 kilos of passenger weight suddenly exited the aircraft. Still, he told his passengers to jump, and they lived. The blimp shot upward and soon was completely ablaze. Mike Nerandzic, 52, from Australia, died in the fire.

Fire in the sky is a terrible thing. If it comes for us, there is so little we can do. We obsess about maintenance, we operate our systems conservatively, and we resolve to seek the ground at the first hint of spark or smoke. And we hope for the best.

Gone West, Capt. Mike Nerandzic, 1958-2011 Photo: Paul Riley/news.com.au

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