Line Safety Column

May 8, 2000

Fire Hazards

A heightened awareness is critical

By Walter Chartrand, VP, Hammonds Fuel Additives

May 2000

Imagine the following scenario ...

The sky is clear; the winds calm. On the flightline, you're prepared to receive a frequent customer flying a helicopter. The pilot is here to pick up passengers transferring from the main airline terminal.

Once the passengers arrive, they board the aircraft and the pilot begins his starting checklist. When the engine starts, the helicopter bursts into flames. Immediately and frantically, the passengers and pilot pile out to safety. In a matter of seconds, the helicopter is engulfed in flames. A few seconds later all that remains is a pile of molten ash. And, it all takes place before your fire extinguishers can even arrive on the scene.

Well, I didn't have to imagine it. I actually saw this happen with my own eyes. The year was 1986, but I can recall it as if it was yesterday.

Fortunately for all involved, no one was seriously injured or, worse, killed. However, two things struck me at the time of the incident:

• The lightning fast speed at which the fire ignited, raged, and was exhausted; and
• The suspended disbelief of those around me, resulting in delayed response to the incident.

Working against each other, these two realities can potentially compound the problem at hand. The point to be made is that this very real situation exists day in and day out at airports and FBOs.

Recognizing and Correcting Risks
All too often, I find those of us in aviation service businesses take fire safety far too lightly. We take for granted that if a fire ever occurs that the fire department will magically appear and solve the problem.

We don't realize that a fuel-related fire might ignite and die before the airport or local fire departments could ever get there. From the experience I mentioned earlier, I can tell you that you don't want fire safety during fueling operations to enter your mind for the first time only after you've seen your facility's name on an accident report.

Here's a fire safety factoid for consideration: Avgas has a flash point of minus-50 degrees F, and aviation jet fuel has a flash point of just 100 degrees F. (And here in Texas, 100 degrees F is a common occurrence.) Are your fuelers aware of this? Are they prepared and properly trained if a fire should occur?

Common Ignition Sources
Unintentionally, many of us carry around ignition sources while fueling — and don't even realize it. An ignition source can be considered just about anything that could create a spark if dropped, mishandled, or allowed to come in close contact with a flame. In fact, several common ignition sources can even be worn as clothing. Such sources include nylon cloths, cigarette lighters and matches, metal taps on shoes, and exposed nails on shoe soles.

Another commonly overlooked ignition source can be found in the plastic funnel and plastic bucket used in standard fueling operations. These are excellent generators of static electricity. Metal funnels, on the other hand, may be used instead of plastic, but they must stay in contact with the filler opening at all times to avoid creating an arc. (Note: Galvanized funnels are not recommended because of their effect on the jet fuel itself, so epoxy or porcelain-lined buckets are preferred.)

One misunderstood area is bonding and grounding of an aircraft. Though grounding is no longer required by law, it remains a sound practice. Bonding, however, is essential. Consider the reason: It can take up to three minutes for a static charge to dissipate. In order to make a complete and effective bond, a fueler must attach a tested bonding connection to an unpainted surface on the aircraft in order to ensure safety.

Many times when flying into FBOs around the country, a line service professional is satisfied to connect the bonding wire to my aircraft's tire rim or the exhaust stack. Although both are unpainted, they are both insulated from the airframe. If a designated grounding/bonding point is not available (as on most small aircraft such as the Cessna 210 that I fly), then I recommend a tiedown.

Strictly forbidden is a fueling deadman device that is jammed or rigged in the open position, though I've seen this frequently. It happens when a fueler tries to come up with some kind of makeshift contraption to try to avoid holding a deadman open. This could, however, prove to be a costly and dangerous mistake.

What would happen, for instance, if a fueler tried this and couldn't stop the fuel from flowing once ignited? Most likely, he or she couldn't stop the resulting fire. Still other common ignition sources include hot brakes (either on an aircraft or ground support service equipment), mufflers and aircraft exhaust, wheels, engines, and exhaust manifolds.

A Personal Pet Peeve
Here's something that makes me nuts, and something that I bet you've seen as well: Exposed wires and broken light lenses that go unchecked for days, weeks, and even months. These are terrific ignition sources, yet get very little attention, in my experience. As an industry, we spend exorbitant amounts of money on explosion-proof electric motors to rewind hose reels, and pay little attention to replacing a 99-cent light cover just 12 inches away. Go figure.

Each year, there are far too many accident and incident reports filed that illustrate our personnel may not be properly trained in fire safety procedures. And the only way to ensure proper training is to get it.

Federal Aviation Regulation 139 requires fuel service providers that service aircraft with 30 or more passengers to have at least one supervisor trained in aviation fuel handling and fire safety.

As an industry, we should agree to tighten that regulation to cover every warm body that passes through our care — passenger, crew, and fully trained staff member.

About the Author
Walter Chartrand, an instructor for the National Air Transportation Association's Line Service Supervisor Training course, is a 20-year veteran of the aviation service business. He managed a corporate jet service center at Houston's Intercontin-ental Airport, served Exxon Com-pany USA as an aviation fuel sales rep, and is currently VP/general manager for The Hammonds Companies, makers of fluid additive injector systems and fuel additives. An instrument multi-rated pilot, he can be reached at (800) 548-9166.