The recent recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone due to its potential to catch fire has highlighted the threat that all lithium-ion battery-powered devices present, especially on board an aircraft. With millions of mobile devices in use, training crews on how to deal with this possible hazard is now crucial. Since 1991, there have been 129 incidents involving aviation and lithium battery fires, 17 percent of them occurring in the last year alone, according to FAA statistics (although not all of these involved mobile devices).
Flaws in battery manufacturing, impact damage, overheating of gray-market batteries or overcharging by low-cost replacement chargers can all start a fire. While typical fire-suppression methods such as electrical-qualified fire extinguishers might temporarily extinguish the flames, they will not end the threat as the overheated device will flare up again and burn until there is no more fuel to consume. Another concern is that battery damage to a Li-ion-powered device could cause thermal runaway days later.
Yet it is a tough call for a flight crewmember to tell a passenger in flight that their smartphone, tablet or laptop is about to ignite. “If it is heating, particularly if you are starting to see smoke, even wisps of smoke, it’s going to go,” said industry safety expert John Cox, the CEO of Safety Operation Systems, who has been studying aircraft fires for the past 15 years. “It’s totally unpredictable as to the severity of the discharge, so you have to assume that it will be a severe discharge and cool it.”
In a presentation on Wednesday at NBAA 2016, he described how battery cells rupture and burn at more than 1,000 deg F, in the process ejecting flaming gel, spraying molten copper and emitting clouds of toxic, highly-flammable, ether-based vapors and smoke that can quickly reduce visibility in an aircraft cockpit. Cox recommends dousing the device in water, cooling it below its ignition temperature, and then securing it in an airtight containment device.
He also advocates the adoption of new FAA guidelines, and the introduction of specific crew training to deal with the problem. To ensure cockpit visibility in a continuous smoke situation he recommends the use of products such as VisionSafe’s EVAS, which comes as standard equipment on the Gulfstream G650. Lastly he urges operators to provide proper protection for those who will have to deal with an exceptionally hazardous situation.