Boeing 747 Freighter Crash in Dubai Spurs Call for Masks

The crash of a Boeing Co. 747 freighter in which two United Parcel Service Inc. pilots died after a cargo fire prompted investigators to call for mandatory full-face oxygen masks in cockpits.

Fire-suppression systems to allow pilots to focus on flying rather than enter blazing cargo bays should be explored, along with technology to improve visibility in smoke-filled cockpits, the United Arab Emirates General Civil Aviation Authority said today in a report.

The agency’s probe into the 2010 crash of UPS Flight 6 in Dubai found that the crew became incapacitated from a fire kindled in an area of the jumbo jet carrying lithium batteries. The GCAA also urged the European Aviation Safety Agency and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to work with Boeing to assess whether the 747 itself requires safety enhancements.

“If a deficiency in the current level of critical systems protection is determined, provide regulatory oversight to mitigate the risk of control and systems damage that can result from large cargo fires,” the GCAA said in the report on its website.

Two other freighter blazes have been linked to lithium battery shipments, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. An Asiana Airlines Inc. 747-400 went down in the South China Sea in 2011, killing both pilots, and a UPS Boeing DC-8 was destroyed by fire in 2006 after making an emergency landing in Philadelphia, with three crew members escaping.

Lithium Batteries

The focus on on-board fire safety follows heightened regulatory attention this year on lithium battery technology in planes.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners were grounded worldwide for three months after two meltdowns in January of lithium-ion batteries that are part of the planes’ power systems. On July 12, a 787 parked at London’s Heathrow airport was damaged in a fire linked to an emergency beacon that uses a different type of lithium battery.

The UAE agency recommended that U.S. and European regulators draft procedures for a scenario in which a crew member is incapacitated and the plane left with a single pilot. Cargo carriers should be required to give instruction in a smoke simulator with full immersion training to replicate continuous fumes, the GCAA said.

Toxic Fumes

Flight 6’s two-person crew inhaled toxic fumes from the fire, according to the accident report. The plane, which like the Asiana jet was a 747-400 variant, crashed near the Dubai airport shortly after takeoff en route to Cologne, Germany.

Since then, Atlanta-based UPS and its pilots union, the Independent Pilots Association, have collaborated on safety improvements including the addition of full-face pilot oxygen masks on all Boeing 747 and MD-11 jets, the wide-body planes typically used on the company’s longest routes.

UPS is adding the masks to other models including 767s and 757s, and they are pre-installed on Airbus SAS A300 aircraft, the company said in an e-mailed statement.

A vision assurance system enabling pilots to see clearly through smoke has been added on UPS’s 747s, along with oxygen masks for the jump-seat pilot, according to the carrier.

These devices “provide significant improvements on the flight deck during an onboard smoke, fire or fume event,” union President Robert Travis said in an e-mailed statement.

UPS has separately purchased about 1,600 metal containers that can contain a fire for as long as four hours when combined with an aerosol suppressant, plus 575 blaze-resistant covers for pallet-sized shipments. Enhanced employee training will also ensure workers recognize hazardous materials and undeclared shipments of flammable goods, UPS said.

“UPS remains committed to aviation safety and the prevention of such events in the future,” the company said.

While the GCAA said the exact cause of the Dubai fire was unclear, it suggested the FAA, EASA and Boeing evaluate the 747’s cargo bay to determine if a transfer of energy from the vibration of the fuselage to the batteries could somehow have ignited them.

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