The FAA Technical Center and the “Miracle” of Surviving Aviation Fires

By Mark Rosekind

Member Rosekind at FAA Technical Center“Many of the NTSB’s recommendations drive our research.” This is what FAA Technical Center Fire Safety Branch Manager Gus Sarkos said when asked how he sets his agenda for the Aviation Research Division at one of the nation’s premier aviation research, development, test, and evaluation facilities.

As part of my NTSB advocacy efforts on fire safety and its inclusion on this year’s Most Wanted List,  I recently visited the Technical Center. Its world-class laboratories, top-notch scientists, and leading engineers are at the forefront modernizing the U.S. air transportation system and making air travel safer than ever before.

Although there were three tragic deaths and scores of injuries resulting from the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in San Francisco on July 6th, 99 percent of the people onboard survived and many are calling it a “miracle.” This miracle is due in part to the Technical Center’s decades of work in researching, developing, testing, and evaluating the flame-retardant materials on seats and in other parts of the cabin. Nearly all the passengers reached safety before the fire entered the plane and even when emergency responders arrived and were helping those too injured to move the fire was not yet severe.

These and other advancements have helped save lives before, as in the 2005 Toronto Air France crash where 309 people survived the post-accident fire. Such achievements underscore the importance of the Technical Center’s critical role in fire suppression and other areas of aviation safety.

The Technical Center’s contributions span a wide range of passenger and cargo flight applications with implementation throughout commercial aviation. These include the development of fire-resistant flight recorders, heat-resistant evacuation slides, fuel tank explosion protection, cargo compartment fire detection and suppression systems, halon hand-held extinguishers, low-heat and smoke interior cabin panels, burn-through-resistant cargo liners and aircraft insulation, and lithium battery fire safety.

Located on 5,000 acres near Atlantic City, the Technical Center consists of state-of-the art laboratories and test facilities. One of the more remarkable of these is the Full-Scale Fire Test Facility. Completed in 1980, it is the largest government-operated structure of its kind with a 40-foot-high fire-proof ceiling that accommodates two full-scale aircraft fuselages where a variety of simulations can take place under controlled conditions.

Three cargo fire accidents in the past 6 years have resulted in the deaths of two flight crews and the total loss of three planes. The NTSB’s involvement in these accident investigations and others have revealed deficiencies in the fire safety strategy for fire detection and suppression in both cargo and passenger aircraft. The FAA Technical Center’s ongoing work and its responsiveness to the NTSB’s investigations are invaluable for helping to provide the safest possible transport for the nation’s travelers, goods, and flight personnel.

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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