Cargo carrier UPS has begun installing new systems in its aircraft to help contain intense fires such as the one that brought down UPS Flight 6, a Boeing 747-400 freighter, on Sept. 3, 2010, in Dubai. The UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) issued its final report on the crash on July 24. The report suggests that a shipment of lithium batteries possibly caught fire and led to the fatal crash.
The Independent Pilots Association (IPA), which represents UPS pilots, said that a joint company and union task force is addressing some of the safety recommendations contained in the GCAA report. “As UPS pilots, we are determined to do everything in our power to minimize the risk associated with on-board smoke and fire events,” said IPA president Robert Travis. “This includes proper regulations governing the carriage of hazardous materials [such as] lithium batteries.”
UPS Flight 6 departed Dubai International Airport, bound for Cologne, Germany. Twenty-two minutes into the flight, the crew notified Bahrain ATC of a fire on the forward main deck. The captain elected to turn back to Dubai. The aircraft crashed 9 nm southwest of the airport, killing both pilots.
By cross-referencing fault messages transmitted by the 747’s aircraft communications addressing and reporting system and anomalies recorded on its flight data recorder with the cargo manifest, the GCAA found “with reasonable certainty” that the fire emanated from “an element” of the cargo that contained, among other items, lithium batteries.
“It is possible that a lithium-type battery or batteries, for reasons which cannot be established, went into an energetic failure characterized by thermal runaway and auto ignited, starting a chain reaction which spread to the available combustible material,” said the GCAA report.
On July 22, UPS said it had ordered 1,821 fire-resistant shipping containers, or unit load devices (ULDs), made from a fiber-reinforced plastic composite. UPS and the FAA have conducted testing showing that a ULD with composite panels can contain a fire as hot as 1,200 degrees F for more than four hours. The carrier said that it expects to take delivery of the containers from September through early next year.
In response to other recommendations by the company-IPA task force, UPS has bought 575 cargo pallet fire containment covers and plans to equip aircraft with quick-donning, full-face pilots’ oxygen masks. It has already installed an “emergency vision assurance system” (EVAS) on its thirteen 747-400s. An inflatable, transparent enclosure, the EVAS allows pilots to see the instruments and outside through the windshield in the presence of smoke on the flight deck.
A company spokesman said UPS has not decided how it will distribute the ULDs across its fleet of 233 Airbus A300s and Boeing 747s, 757s, 767s and MD-11s. He declined to comment on the company’s investment in the fire-safety systems. “We’ve identified a container that we believe helps mitigate the risk of in-flight fire and smoke events,” he said. “We continue to look at a multi-layered approach to safety; it’s [about] how can we take a varied approach to mitigate the risks.”