The Technical Implications and Safety Impact of The B787 Fire at Heathrow

It is reasonable to conclude that Boeing can breathe a sigh of relief that the recent fire episode involving the Honeywell Emergency Location Transmitter (ELT) appears not to be the result of being connected to the aircraft’s primary power. However the recent announcements by the UK CAA, EASA and the FAA, have revealed an alarming truth regarding the management of a fire event in a part of the aircraft where there is no fire suppression equipment, and for which access on the part of the cabin crew during flight would be difficult.

The AAIB report presented on Friday, July 19, revealed that it took two attempts for fire-fighters to bring the blaze under control. The first failed attempt utilized a Halon fire-extinguisher (which cabin-crew would have access to during flight). The second successful attempt involved stronger measures with the forced entry into the affected area by removing a ceiling-panel and then dowsing the flames with water. The latter is not at all available to cabin-crew during flight.

The AAIB report was, to certain extent, correct and proportionate, in that the recommendation to disable the ELT on all B787s and then to perform inspections of other aircraft types that employ the same ELT, and more recently, the FAA’s response that now seems to mirror AAIB suggestions. Previously, the FAA seemed to advocate the wait and see approach.

When the reader considers the safety implications of the incident in context of an aircraft in-flight, then it can be argued that the wait and see approach is breathtakingly dangerous. Thankfully, the FAA has now seen the light in this regard. “I do not know of any fire-fighters able to fight a fire like this at 36,000 ft.,” says Steve Mullen of Avia Intelligence.

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