Danger on Board

Fires are rare, but one of the most feared events a crew can face.


The Freight Risk
If passenger baggage is a problem, consider the task of the package and freight carriers who are given literally millions of packages to be air freighted. We have thick manuals on handling of dangerous goods, all useless if the stuff is not identified. Lithium batteries are now a major source of concern. Unfortunately, they seem to be part of every new device on the market. If subjected to heat, these batteries suffer an internal runaway and catch fire. A lithium fire is extremely hot and nearly inextinguishable.

Unless strict control and monitoring of shippers is done, and verified at the airport when a shipment arrives, you truly do not know what is going on to your aircraft. I was once called planeside because a loader lifter was unable to raise two LD-3 containers up into the belly of a B747. I could easily hear the scream of the hydraulics protesting against the weight and noticed that the containers seemed to be almost molding themselves to the rollers on the loader lifter. Max weight of each can was supposed to be 3,250 pounds. I saw they had weights marked on them in the 2,800-pound range but requested they be off loaded back to their carts. I noticed the rubber tires on the carts went nearly flat.

The cargo people vehemently swore they weighed every can given them by a shipper. Nevertheless, when we forced them to take them back to the freight warehouse, I was not surprised that each can topped out in excess of 8,000 pounds. I was not surprised because the scales that they swore were religiously used, were all blocked with material and were obviously not recently used. In this case, they were filled with aluminum stampings nested to make an almost solid block inside. If they didn’t even know what they weighed, then did they know what was in them? Obviously, accepting the shipper’s word that all is well is not enough. A 5,000-pound overload in each of two LD-3s proves that. Certainly, the weight and balance of the aircraft could not be correctly computed using the shipper’s figures. A new cargo manager put a stop to fiddling by the shippers, at least in weight.

Rough handling also doesn’t help. One now extinct freight carrier gloried in using forklifts to load cargo pallets into freighters. They were certainly skilled; heading toward the aircraft, they would raise the load till the forks just cleared the threshold, and then stomp on the brakes and let the inertia of the pallet take it into the aircraft. Of course, there were only the siderails in the cargo compartment to stop it, and the practice was stopped after we found they had damaged several aircraft frames in doing so. More insidious was the shock loading to the contents of the pallet. How many drums and containers sprang leaks is a question I can not answer.

A Concentrated effort needed
So, if we are going to protect the airmen flying the aircraft, not to mention passengers and cabin crew on passenger aircraft, it will take a concentrated effort by the ground personnel — checking invoices and spot-checking containers or prepacked pallets by x-ray if necessary. Certainly, weighing each pallet is required. Reasonable handling practices and the use of good equipment is also needed. New technology in fire suppression is necessary. I have heard of an overhead-mounted firefighting unit that will go down the top of the main deck compartment of the MD-11, detect a “hot” container or pallet and actually pierce it and inject a fire-suppressant agent into it. All this without requiring the flight crew to enter the main deck compartment. I would rate this development very highly. It would be a shame if the deaths of two pilots did not lead to better methods of ensuring that no more fires are caused by cargo and freight.

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