UAL 27: A Cheap Inflight Fire Lesson
We've been following an incident earlier this week in which a Boeing 757 made an emergency landing at Dulles following a cockpit fire—a serious one, by the sounds of it. This incident raises some critical issues which I'll address, but the over arching one is that if you have a serious cockpit fire, two things are likely true: You don't have the breathing apparatus to stay alive that airline pilots do and for as long as it will take to get on the ground, you might as well be on Mars.
Let's consider the altitude question first. The United 757 had just leveled at cruise at FL360 when the fire erupted. The crew knocked it down with one portable bottle, but it reignited, requiring a second dose from another bottle. On approach, the Captain's windshield, whose electrical heating was evidently the source of the fire, cracked but remained sealed. At 36,000 feet, you are a long, long way from being able to evacuate an airplane. I can't find an exact timeline, but FlightAware tracking suggests it took 21 minutes to get on the ground once the crew declared an emergency. With an intensifying fire, that is an eternity.
It may be a little better or a little worse for light aircraft pilots. Take a turbocharged airplane cruising in the high teens. The most rapid practical descent rate is probably 2500 FPM, but it'll be less than that in IMC. That means 7 minutes to the deck, but it's actually likely to be longer because you'll want to at least try to position the airplane to land on an airport or at least a suitable, survivable off airport site. At night or in IMC, it will be much more difficult.
Which raises the question of how to survive long enough to even descend and set up the landing. Airline crews, as noted, are equipped for this, with oxygen masks and smoke goggles. Some aircraft owners—very few, I'd surmise—carry portable smoke hoods in the cabin just for this reason. This is relatively cheap insurance against a relatively small likelihood of a fire. But if you're the pilot with the fire, you're not going to be thinking about probabilities.
Having said this, I don't always carry a smoke hood, although I have. The incident of cockpit fires is quite low but perhaps not low enough to assume the risk is too small to prepare for. If you like to be prepared for everything, it's hardly paranoia to consider a smoke hood.
The other eyebrow raiser here is industry response to these incidents. The FAA and NTSB said there have been at least nine similar fires in Boeing aircraft. On a flight basis, that's a tiny number, but on a fleet basis, it's not so tiny when you consider the ramifications of a cockpit fire over the mid-Atlantic. What I don't get is how, having indentified common flaws in a design or installation that results in very real safety incidents, the industry is so bad at correcting them.
The FAA is often accused of having a tombstone mentality. But I'd argue that the charge should apply equally to airlines and manufacturers. The paying public is relying on them to respond to things like this yet nine inflight fire incidents suggests that none are.