Carbon Fiber Airframe Likely Played A Role In JAL 516 Evacuation


The Financial Times reports from London that the composite structure of the Airbus A350 likely played a role in the survival of all 379 on board Japan Airlines Flight 516. The incident marks the first hull loss involving the 53% composite airframe A350-900 and preliminary evidence suggests the material performed to expectations, providing fire protection similar to that of aluminum.

Certification standards require that airliner manufacturers demonstrate their designs are capable of evacuating all passengers within 90 seconds using half the available exits. Bjorn Fehrm, an aeronautical engineer, told the Financial Times, “The most important part, whether the plane is aluminum or carbon fiber, is that you have protection for many, many minutes from external heat. In this case, the carbon fiber is giving that heat-shield protection.”

Even though carbon fiber will burn at lower temperatures than the 600 degrees Celsius of aluminum, Emile Greenhalgh, a professor of composite materials at London’s Imperial College, said the composite material reacts differently to fire. “As the material burns,” he said, “all the flammable material forms a char layer, so you end up with a barrier against the progression of fire.”

While Airbus and Boeing, with its largely-composite 787 Dreamliner, have tested their aircraft to satisfy certification requirements, the JAL accident provides real-world evidence of the performance of carbon fiber in a catastrophic fire.

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.


  1. I’m sure the composite materials likely played a role in the survival of all on board the aircraft. I’m definitely certain that the Japanese themselves played the primary role in the safe and orderly evacuation of the aircraft.

    • I agree! I seriously doubt that a plane full of Americans would have done anywhere near as well.

      • I don’t see how you could say that. I am sure that once they took some selfies, uploaded a copy of videos to TikTok, FaceTimed with a couple of BFFs, grabbed all their carryon bags and maybe called Uber, I am sure they would have all exited the plane just as quickly as the passengers on the JAL flight did.

  2. The regulations require the plane has to be evacuated in 90 seconds for certification. I understand the actual evacuation took much , much longer.

    • The emergency doors on the right of the airplane were engulfed withi fire from the kerosene in the raunway and, therefore, couldn’t be used. Only tree emergency doors on the left side could be used. Read the official statements first before to comment.

    • I read that the flight attendants waited for the pilots to give the ok to open the doors. Back in the 70’s and 80’s I traveled to 59 countries and 48 states, many more than once. I always knew where the exits were and how to open them. I certainly wouldn’t have waited on the ok from the flight crew if there is fire all around the aircraft. I would have found an exit with the least amount of fire, opened the door and gotten out. You can’t depend on the flight crew. They could easily be incapacitated by injuries leaving you on your own to survive. Pay attention to the safety briefing and read the safety card carefully. The life you safe could be your own.

  3. we must remember that faa evacuations tests are done with healthy, trained, in shape people not the average passenger load with children, old people, over weight out of shape passengers.

    if they did the tests with a normal group of passengers they would need to make the aisles wider more room in the seats etc.

    the FAA should require manufacturers to meet certification with an average group of passengers.

    • Not necessarily true, the certification evacuations are performed with a cross section of humanity, not necessarily trained and in shape individuals.

    • While the ‘passengers’ in the test must be of ‘normal health’ (no disability that would compromise the test), they are not trained and cannot have been a participant in any previous test within six months. A third of them must be over 50 and 40pct must be female. Three infant sized dolls are included. No one who maintains or operates the aircraft may participate.

  4. How can it have played a role in successful evacuation when evidence suggests that the material performed to the same expectations as aluminum?

  5. The majority of people do not appreciate the real risks in life and therefore those real risks just become the ‘norm’, until a risk materializes into an actual event. Then people notice, but then forget. If people were really concerned about the airlines cramming seats into narrow tubes they’d boycott the airlines or not buy tickets. But obviously, that isn’t the case. It’s analogous to the “boiling frog” metaphor.

  6. No comment on the off-gassing (toxic fumes) from the burning composites. I’m thrilled that everyone got out from just the two forward exits.

    • Even Al airframes are crammed full of plastics in the interiors. Breathing any fumes of any of these materials, plastics or metals, is not recommended.

    • First thing I thought of when reading about the fire. That must’ve been a nasty, toxic cloud downwind of the a/c. I’d guess the ARFF crews were wearing air packs in their trucks.

  7. A few thoughts:

    1) This accident appears to have similarities with the 1991 accident at LAX when a US Air Boeing 737 landed on a SkyWest Airlines Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner.

    2) Many airlines have started prioritizing tourism promotion over safety in their safety videos. JAL’s safety videos stand out for their focus on serious instructions such as evacuations, luggage procedures, and slide usage:

    3) Yes, composites seem to burn differently. Some of the videos suggest that the firefighters were on scene with the fire largely out on the exterior, with flames in the interior in the aft of the cabin. Between that video and the photo the morning after, it appears that the fire completely consumed the aircraft leaving little of the fuselage. The following article resurrects an article from 2009 about combatting composite airplane fires and discusses findings on the difference of composite aircraft fire fighting demands, toxic smoke and remains, and cleanup considerations:

  8. One comment implied the Japanese would evacuate in a very orderly fashion unlike U.S. passengers. I spent 2 years in Japan and rode the trains and buses frequently, and while the Japanese have different customs they are just as much victims of panic as we are in the U.S.

    • Exactly. I love the narrow minded comments that ‘those Japanese can evacuate better than Americans’. Just ignorant because the manifest had Americans, French, Swedish and other internationals. The fact that the plane was burning trumps personal belongings vs living. I have seen a few videos of the evacuees and some of them had personal items in hand. Open mouth insert ………