MH 370: Fire as a Black Swan

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Curiosity may have killed the cat, but at the very least, it can create some vivid nightmares and I had one last night. Like everyone else, I’ve been following the sputtering investigation of Malaysian Flight MH 370, especially the fire-in-flight theories. So I spent the day reading fire-in-flight accident reports and woke up in a cold sweat last night, imagining myself choking on some smoky, non-descript flight deck. Awful.

But not nearly so awful as the real thing as described in five accidents I researched. Watching the cable channels and following news reports, it seems like the MH 370 theories are going through a bizarre cycling loop as factual leads become ever harder to come by. Now, the talking heads have latched onto the presence of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold as a likely fire source and two plus two naturally equals five. If this turns out to be true—and we may never know—MH 370 will be a bit of a black swan, a unique case in which fire disabled the crew and partially disabled the airplane, which then continued to fly for seven hours.

In the real world of transport aircraft fires, it hasn’t worked that way. Just the reverse. In the five in-flight fires I looked at, none flew longer than 30 minutes after smoke or fire was detected and two flew barely 20 minutes and two were fully involved in five minutes or less.

Remember ValuJet 592 (PDF)? It crashed in the Florida Everglades in May 1996 after a shipment of improperly packed oxygen generators ignited. Time from report of first fire detection to the crash: Three minutes and 32 seconds. Swissair 111, an MD-11, crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia in September 1998 after overhead wiring in the entertainment system ignited. Time from report of first fire detection to the crash: just under 21 minutes. In February 2006, a UPS DC-8 freighter (PDF) was fortuitously on approach to Philadelphia International when the engineer confirmed a cabin smoke indication. Five minutes later, the flight landed and the crew evacuated in dense, billowing smoke. The aircraft burned to destruction on the ground. The ignition source wasn’t determined, but lithium-ion batteries, which the airplane was carrying, were mentioned.

More recently, in September 2010, UPS 6 (PDF), a 747 freighter, crashed in Dubai following a cargo hold fire believed to have probably been caused by a shipment of lithium ion batteries. Time from report of first fire detection to the crash: 27 minutes.

Then there was FedEx 1466 (PDF) in September 1996—September seems to be a bad month for fires. It flew for 18 minutes from the time of first smoke detection until the end. But it didn’t crash. It made an emergency landing at Newburgh, New York and was destroyed by fire on the ground. The crew and two passengers escaped with minor injuries. In some ways, it’s the most interesting of the four because it vividly illustrates how quickly fires propagate and how survival can turn on timely decision making and discipline.

The airplane was a DC-10 enroute from Memphis to Boston when, at FL330, the flight engineer reported a cabin smoke indication. Although the NTSB would later ding the Captain for poor crew resource management, it didn’t give him much credit for rapid decision making that probably saved the crew and passengers’ lives. As more smoke alarms appeared, just 3:30 into the incident he acted: “We’ve definitely got smoke guys. We need to get down, right now, let’s go.”

On approach to Newburgh, he coached the First Officer to ignore the 10,000-foot 250-knot speed restriction and get the airplane on the deck. He did, just in time. As the crew was exiting, they were propped in windows venting dense smoke like chimneys. Another minute or two might have made the situation unsurvivable. As it was, the NSTB criticized the Captain for interrupting or failing to supervise the Flight Engineer who neglected to close a cabin vent and to depressurize the airplane after landing, momentarily delaying egress.  

As with other hull-loss fires, the source of ignition in FedEx 1466 was never determined, but lithium-ion wasn’t suspect as it was in the two UPS incidents. And, adhering to guilt by association, in MH 370, too, at least by some willing to weave a theory without confirming data. Malaysia Airlines confirmed that the flight was carrying more than 400 pounds of lithium-ion batteries. To be fair, it’s not unreasonable to think these could have been a fire source. There are various ways to explain how this could have selectively disabled certain systems—the comms and ACARs—while leaving the fly-by-wire control system functional. And the 777 does have sophisticated fire detection and suppression systems in its cargo compartments. While this turn of events might not be a high probability, it’s not zero probability either.

But I keep coming back to those other accidents in which fire rapidly propagated and destroyed aircraft, even as two of which were being attacked by airport fire crews. If speculation is a mold, lack of information is its Petri dish, so I remain skeptical of all the theories thus far. But with regard to the fire postulation, I’ll concede the logical fallacy of believing something can’t happen because it never has—the black swan.

One thing is certain, however. As the accidents above describe, a fire in any aircraft rarely leaves other than one option: get it on the deck right now. It’s not arbitrary that the very first line in the 777 Smoke, Fire or Fumes checklist, even ahead of the mask and goggles, is to consider a diversion. It’s clearly meant to be a negative option. In other words, divert now, unless you have a really good reason not to.

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Comments (29)

Interesting but for the reasons you stated I doubt it was a fire. Considering the lack of communication from anyone, including passengers, I think it likely there was a pressurization problem that went unrecognized. This slowly resulted in crew incapacitation until they were confused and disoriented enough to perhaps shut off the transponder instead of changing the code or making other mistakes such as setting the reciprocal heading of a course change meant to take them towards China. Eventually it killed the passengers and crew with the plane flying on until it ran out of fuel. I think they are calling it the "Payne Stewart scenario" for the similar incident with a small business jet. Regardless of the cause, which we may never know, the tragic result will be a topic for converstion for many years.

Posted by: RODNEY HALL | March 25, 2014 12:00 PM    Report this comment

"One thing is certain, however. As the accidents above describe, a fire in any aircraft rarely leaves other than one option: get it on the deck right now."

While IMC I had smoke in the cockpit - I rapidly called in an emergency describing the problem warning that we were shutting off electrical systems - last transmission. On the spot ATC came back clearing us for lower and landing on the nearest airport - emergency crews were at the ready. All ended well but what I remember best was the super-fast reaction from all, "get-it-on-the-deck-now" is correct.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 25, 2014 1:40 PM    Report this comment

I believe that after the UPS crash in Dubai, a possible response to such a battery fire became to climb and deprive the fire of its oxygen. What if they attempted this, but then encountered further issues : toxic fumes, temperature or oxygen supply issues. Doesn't take long at that altitude to incapacitate the crew. And while working all that, and aviating frantically, communicating may not have been at the top of the agenda. But perhaps a quick twist of the autopilot button to turn back ?
While the climb may have been detrimental to crew&pax, perhaps it did kill the fire, allowing the airplane to fly on and on ?
Well, there are a thousand scenarios at this stage, but allow me to prefer those that don't point a finger at the crew.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | March 25, 2014 2:35 PM    Report this comment

Maybe I'm not being creative enough, but I can't see how there could be a fire on board severe enough to disable several electrical systems and presumably incapacitate all on board, but not destroy the aircraft so it could continue flying for 6 or 7 hours. As has been stated above, all of the in-flight fires I'm aware of completely disabled/destroyed the aircraft is less than 30 minutes. I'm simply not buying the fire theory.

Then again, I don't believe there were any successful (in that more than a couple people lived) [crash] landings of a modern aircraft that lost all hydraulic pressure before United 232.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 25, 2014 6:58 PM    Report this comment

"Black swan" events are categorized as unique and rare events, however, some have similarities that are only separated by degrees of non-pilot human error intensity. The British Comet failures, the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion due to an "O" ring leak, B737 (SwissAir 111) toxic fumes and insulation fires. B787 lithium-ion disconcerting battery systems. These and others may be the "Black-swans" of bad-engineering-gone-wild.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 26, 2014 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Unfortunately, everything matters. As an engineer, I am often told by non-engineers "you are too detailed/picky about some matter" (by the way this is why my preflights take an eternity :-) But everything DOES matter. Place lithium battery contacts against a conductive object and see what happens. Put a crack in an elevator hinge pin and see what happens; forget to remove the gust lock (reference the prototype B-17), accidentally overtorque/stretch the prop bolts, forget to drain sumps on a chilly damp morning with heavy dew, or forget a lockwasher on the mixture control and see what happens. Sometimes I wonder how any of us hapless aviators survive in the long run.

I think the so-called "Black Swans" are just problems that were always there, but maybe were inadvertently suppressed by partial fixes, or they have such a statistical low probability they just haven't happened...yet. Our human nature tends to brush these things off; as a bona-fide member of the human race I hate to admit it, but everything does matter and there is no brushing aside ANY of it.

Posted by: A Richie | March 26, 2014 9:39 AM    Report this comment

If one is looking for a black swan we should consider Ian Fleming's "Thunderball". Other than 400 pounds of lithium mentioned, do we really know what was being transported in the belly of that plane. Was it gold or maybe diamonds just marked lithium to avoid suspension.
Why the climb to 45,000 ft. If the crew had pressure suits, the climb to 45,000 ft in a unpressurized plane would kill anyone not protected.
Why the south Indian Ocean, well it has taken a long time to look there. Ditch the plane next to your recovery ship to get the cargo, then break the plane up and sail away.
It will be interesting to see what the Hollywood writers come up with.

Posted by: Howard Elmore | March 26, 2014 10:19 AM    Report this comment

Lithium-ion batteries are the most energetic batteries available but they can burst into flames. Rarely happens, a Black Swan, just a few packs per million have a problem (?). But when it happens, you are probably in the aircraft and it becomes a very exciting thing. So why allow their use? Sony recalled thousands of Lithium-ion packs but the threat remains. The B787 is a good example.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 26, 2014 10:30 AM    Report this comment

The black swan reference here has nothing to do with the li-ion batteries, but the point that a fire sufficient to disable the crew would allow the airplane to remain intact enough to fly for seven more hours. We've never seen such a thing before and thus it would be a black swan if we did. But black swans occur, so...

As for the li-ion, Rafael, the 787 vs portable batteries isn't the comparison you want. Small-device--non-rechargeable--li-ion are called primary lithium-ion and they contain lithium metal, not just lithium salts. They are quite energetic when they explode. The battery industry--Sony included--estimated one short and battery failure per million cells. That's a statistical expectation and not a black swan by any means.

Just for reference, UPS 6 had either 600,000 or 800,000 cells aboard. I'm going by memory and forgot the exact number. So the odds of a fire aren't exactly astronomical, even if they are rare. Furthermore, IATA estimated in 2006 that the industry would suffer a cargo hull loss every two years to lithium battery fires if the industry didn't improve packaging and regulation and containers, which it has done to a degree. Seondary li-ion has its own issues with volatility, but the considerations are different.

I'm not suggesting or even implying there was a fire on MH 370 nor am I suggesting the likelihood of batteries causing it just because they were there. That's the two plus two equals five logic. I was merely examining the shortcoming of the fire theory.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 26, 2014 10:55 AM    Report this comment

Now that every input from practically every sensor goes thru a central computer, which chews on the inputs based on software, it's the software that decides what,where and when it will do something. Fantastic bit of kit if all sensors and associated WIRING are in tip top shape. If there is a bad connection or short in one wire that is, worst case, smoldering in the center of a huge bundle perhaps partially burning thru insulation on a number of neighboring wires from other inputs or outputs all making their way back to or from the central processor than you not only have your BLACK SWAN but by 'digitalizing' everything one with a CHECKERBOARD pattern.

Posted by: Edward Michalowski | March 26, 2014 11:16 AM    Report this comment

Paul, the Li-on battery problem is the same, thermal runaway. Boeing and the battery manufacturer, YUASA, would like the public to believe it is a safe application. But I am not comfortable or confident based on the extent of the situation. I think it is a bad application. I am getting to the point where I look at my iPhone for smoke before using it.

Wiki: "This was followed with a full grounding of the entire Boeing 787 fleet, the first such grounding since that of DC-10s in 1979.[1] It is reported that the plane has had two major battery thermal runaway events in 52,000 flight hours, which was substantially below the 10 million flight hours predicted by Boeing, and had done so in a dangerous manner.[2]"

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 26, 2014 11:42 AM    Report this comment

Everyday I've been listening to coverage of this disappearance and everyday I've heard claims and so-called reports of this that and the other thing and based on these reports usually you start to get a sense or at least a narrowing of possibilities of what could have possibly happened for this flight to have disappeared, unprecedently I might add in this day and age.
However, the Media seem to not care a wit whether something is true, even remotely possible and pour these 'reports' out as if they were the gospel truth. JExample, BREAKING NEWS that according to the last ACAR report someone intentionally entered a deviation into the FMS and it had to be human hands that did this. WHAT?????? Now I'm an old steam gauge pilot and not up on the latest and greatest fantasmical doodads that 'planes' come equipped with I'll readily admit, but how in hell can or why would it be able to differentiate this and what purpose would this serve. Couple of days later this reported action by the crew was later flippantly dismissed as being false. Why was it reported in the first place, doesn't the staff check with at least their 'expert' panel before they spew forth such nonsense. I don't think I have ever seen so much misleading bogus misinformation later to be denied in my entire life. Makes speculation on this mishap a "mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma".

Posted by: Edward Michalowski | March 26, 2014 11:56 AM    Report this comment

A Richie. Preflights,I'm the same way. I had one FBO offer that if he unscrewed a couple of panels I'd have completed an Annual for the aircraft. For me I guess having been crewchief in Vietnam helped me be that way and here's at least partially why. My Cobra came in after dark one day and the pilot wrote it up for inop FM comm radio. That goes to the avionics team to figure out and I went on to do the required Daily Inspection to get the bird ready for the next day. Avionics guy needed to remove a panel that is normally not removed during a Daily and discovers that there is half of a 50 cal bullet that went thru a wire bundle and knocked out the comm. Where is the other half of the bullet???? It seems the the bullet was split almost precisely in half by hitting the edge of the battery box made from a very heavy gauge sheet that contained ni-cad cells use for starting a 1300hp Lycoming turbine. One half cut thru the bundle and the other half spent itself inside the battery box leaving bulges in various places visible on the outside of the box (as if an enraged miniature bull was trying to get out) while it was making a chunky milkshake inside. BLACK SWAN

Posted by: Edward Michalowski | March 26, 2014 12:35 PM    Report this comment

Edward, "Riddle...mystery...enigma.." I think that's what Churchhill said about Russia; we need some of that wisdom today methinks.

Regarding mystery 50 cal bullets, my son likes to do metal detecting and lives in a small college town in the south. In his next door neighbor's backyard (among a neighborhood of old dense 1930s urban city houses) he found a fired 50 cal bullet intact about 5 inches underground. It has clear rifling marks (meaning it was fired) but no other deformations (in perfect shape otherwise). Question: How did it get there? We figure some AAF pilot during the WW2 era must have touched off a few rounds overhead the city and it fell into the soft backyard. Nobody would have dared fired a massive M2 in that little neighborhood and how else would it be so clean? Lucky no one was standing there. Another BLACK SWAN!

Posted by: A Richie | March 26, 2014 2:37 PM    Report this comment

The world is perplexed by the MH370 event and after almost three weeks, neither laypeople nor professionals know what really happened. Guessing, as we are, enlightens and in an appropiate way this occurrence may help prevent another.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 26, 2014 11:46 PM    Report this comment

Now it is clear why it takes a year or more... Being a previous investigator that included a few aviation accidents, the answer rarely matches the loose theories one is trying to dismiss to leave the only solution as in Hokum's Razor of the simple answer is usually the right one... Now with the "extra" news that contact was made on Guard with another Airline, (if it is true) and withheld, again! You know, I really can't think of anything to say, being the facts are well... Nevermind.

Posted by: Chuck West | March 28, 2014 10:08 AM    Report this comment

Thru the fog of senility I remember a KC 97 (Air Force mid air refueling tanker) flying aimlessly over Canada for hours after the crew bailed out when an in flight fire was detected. That was standard operating procedure. Of course occupants of civilian passenger and cargo aircraft usually don't have that option. Ret. AF .

Posted by: James Hodges | March 28, 2014 12:31 PM    Report this comment

Our company (LithFire-X) is in process of final development of a containment crating system for transport and storage of 'compromised' lithium ion battery packs.
Macro Industries has developed an freight container with a 4 hour fire rating
Slowly but surely the issues are being acknowledged and dealt with.

Posted by: Gerald Flood | March 28, 2014 12:41 PM    Report this comment

Our company (LithFire-X) is in process of final development of a containment crating system for transport and storage of 'compromised' lithium ion battery packs.
Macro Industries has developed an air freight container with a 4 hour fire rating
Slowly but surely the issues are being acknowledged and dealt with.

Posted by: Gerald Flood | March 28, 2014 12:41 PM    Report this comment

A key element in the cargo fire thesis may be the climb to Fl 450, well above the operating ceiling for the B777. This could represent an attempt to extinguish a fire in the cargo by starving the fire of oxygen. I have seen this done successfully with damaged military aircraft. The subsequent descent, which appeared uncontrolled in some axes, could indicate the failure of that attempt. With an incapacitated, or nearly incapacitated crew, a final effort might have put the aircraft on heading hold while the fire, emitting toxic fumes and smoke, eventually burned itself out.
It is important to recognize that Swissair 111 crashed into the ocean following a loss of control by an incapacitated fight crew, not because of fire damage to the aircraft's structure. The debris field indicated that the aircraft struck the ocean largely intact.

Posted by: Michael Novick | March 28, 2014 1:43 PM    Report this comment

Many years ago a KC 97 AF mid air refueling tankers crew bailed out over Canada when they had an in flight fire. Bailing out was SOP. The aircraft flew aimlessly over Canada for many hours before it ran out of fuel and crashed in the wilderness. The Canadians had Fighters ready to shoot it down if it approached heavily populated areas. Of course most occupants of transport and passenger aircraft don't have the option of bailing out. Ret. AF.

Posted by: James Hodges | March 28, 2014 1:55 PM    Report this comment

"It is important to recognize that Swissair 111 crashed into the ocean following a loss of control by an incapacitated fight crew, not because of fire damage to the aircraft's structure."

My understanding was that 111 crashed because the aircraft became uncontrollable by the crew (because the control cables became severed), not because the crew became incapacitated.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 28, 2014 3:02 PM    Report this comment

From the Swissair 111 accident report:

"About 13 minutes after the abnormal odour was first detected, the aircraft's flight data recorder began to record a rapid succession of aircraft systems-related failures. The flight crew declared an emergency and indicated a need to land immediately. About one minute later, radio communications and secondary radar contact with the aircraft were lost, and the flight recorders stopped functioning. About five and one-half minutes later, at 10:31 p.m. Atlantic daylight saving time (ADT), the aircraft crashed into the ocean about five nautical miles southwest of Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada. The aircraft was destroyed and there were no survivors."

During that time, one of the engines was believed to have been shutdown by one of the crew members, suggesting at least one was still functioning in the cockpit.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 29, 2014 5:35 AM    Report this comment

Not all toxic fumes can be smelt nor might smoke be visible in a cockpit illuminated by dimmed lights.

Posted by: Scott Jackson | March 29, 2014 6:07 AM    Report this comment

Has anyone looked at the AD issued for the O2 system for the B-777 in August 2012? Result of an Egyptair B777 that caught fire at the gate in Cairo. Burned a hole in the fuselage near the F/O's station. 280 aircraft were effected. It was the result of an O2 line rubbing again wiring. So there you are in cruise, fire breaks out near the F/O, Captain dons his mask and guess what? No O2 because the line is burned through and the fire follows the melting line to the bottles. Where are the bottles?

As for flying a long time depressurized, check out Helios 522, flew until fuel exhaustion. A flight attendant with a walk around bottle tried to control but was too late.

Now I don't know if the MH370 aircraft was subject of the AD or if it was modified (it should have been by the end of February 2014 by my calculation but then again, a US AD for a Malaysian registered aircraft? What is the validity there? We could use some more info on the subject.

Posted by: Gregory West | March 29, 2014 9:43 AM    Report this comment

It's all conjecture and it may always remain so. But there is a lot of information available that seems to be relevant yet not well known. For example, what exactly is a "ping'? Of course it is an exchange of data but precisely what data? How many exchanges? What timing and all the rest? This is all known but not by most of us and that data might offer clues. How easily can that data be corrupted? (In the Mode C/S world there is only a single bit, the A1 bit, that separates -1200 ft from 30700 ft pressure altitude. Ditto for thousands of other combinations). So how sure are we of the altitudes reported on the news?

The "doppler" derived data is interesting but what do we really know of it? Consider that the Inmarsat is 22,236 miles above a point in the indian ocean. If it was communicating with an aircraft at the horizon traveling directly toward that spot on the ocean, then the doppler-derived speed toward the Inmarsat would be essentially equal to ground speed. But if the aircraft was "under" the satellite there would be no net speed and thus no doppler. The latter appears to be closer, at least if we believe the flight path went west of Australia.

Personally i've leaned all along toward the fire scenario. And personally I'm not at all sure MH370 went another 7 hours SW at all. A fire can really mess up electronics and yet not be big enough to melt everything down. The boxes communicate largely via data busses and there are a lot of different lines and combinations that in a damaged wire bundle might say all sorts of crazy things to boxes they weren't supposed to be talking to at all. Things don't go through a "central" computer, there are literally hundreds of what might be termed computers talking to each other simultaneously. Stir that up a little and anything is possible, the signal to blink a light might be interpreted as spool up the engine. Not likely of course, the the number of possibilities are too immense to ever test completely.

Posted by: Darryl Phillips | March 30, 2014 7:19 PM    Report this comment

[Docket No. FAA-2012-0104; Directorate Identifier 2011-NM-279-AD; Amendment 39-17107; AD 2012-13-05] RIN 2120-AA64
Airworthiness Directives; The Boeing Company Airplanes AGENCY: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), DOT. ACTION: Final rule. ----------------------------------

SUMMARY: We are adopting a new airworthiness directive (AD) for certain The Boeing Company Model 777-200, -200LR, -300, -300ER, and 777F series airplanes. This AD was prompted by a report indicating that a fire originated near the first officer's area, which caused extensive damage to the flight deck. This AD requires replacing the low-pressure oxygen hoses with non-conductive low- pressure oxygen hoses in the flight compartment. We are issuing this AD to prevent electrical current from passing through the low-pressure oxygen hose internal anti-collapse spring, which can cause the low-pressure oxygen hose to melt or burn, and a consequent oxygen-fed fire in the flight compartment.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 30, 2014 7:37 PM    Report this comment

[Docket No. FAA-2012-0105; Directorate Identifier 2011-NM-123-AD; Amendment 39-17049; AD 2012-09-14] RIN 2120-AA64
Airworthiness Directives; The Boeing Company Airplanes AGENCY: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), DOT. ACTION: Final rule. ----------------------------------

SUMMARY: We are adopting a new airworthiness directive (AD) for certain The Boeing Company Model 777 airplanes. This AD was prompted by reports of fractured and missing latch pin retention bolts that secure the latch pins on the forward cargo door. This AD requires repetitive detailed inspections for fractured or missing latch pin retention bolts, replacement of existing titanium bolts with new Inconel bolts, and related investigative and corrective actions if necessary. We are issuing this AD to detect and correct fractured and missing latch pin retention bolts, which could result in potential separation of the cargo door from the airplane and catastrophic decompression of the airplane

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 30, 2014 7:50 PM    Report this comment

N.N. Taleb, the Black Swan author, refines a Black Swan to be a rare, high impact event, highly improbable TO ITS VICTIMS.

This leaves the door open to preventing, averting, eluding, ameliorating, learning from Black Swans.

Posted by: Bill Corcoran | December 25, 2015 7:36 AM    Report this comment

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