Atlanta, GA - ItIs a pilot’s worst nightmare – a fire alarm at 30,000 feet.
“Most pilots see an onboard fire as the most dangerous possible event. If you look at air cargo industry statistics, you’ll see that on average, you have about 18-minutes of time between fire detection and disaster,” said UPS pilot Bob Brown.
In September 2010, UPS Flight Six took off from Dubai, UAE on a flight to Germany. Less than 30-minutes after departure, the crew of the Boeing 747-400 reported a fire alarm and decided to return to Dubai. Minutes from the airport, the airplane crashed, killing both crew members.
That tragedy spurred both UPS and its pilots, members of the Independent Pilots Association, into action. They began meeting weekly to come up with improvements to make in-flight fires more survivable.
This week, UPS began putting the plan into place, ordering 1,821 MACROLite Unit Load Devices (ULDs) – shipping containers both company and pilots say provide revolutionary protection in the event of an onboard fire in flight.
“They’re fire resistant, lighter and more durable than current shipping containers,” said UPS Airlines spokesman Malcolm Berkley.
The MACROLite ULDs can contain a fire of 1,200 degrees for up to four hours. That, said Brown, would allow 98 percent of all UPS flights time to locate a suitable airport and land.
In a demonstration for both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, the committee developing MACROLite ULDs loaded one with lithium-ion batteries, computers, cell phones and hundreds of other packages representative of a normal cargo load, then set it on fire. Not only did the ULD contain the fire for four hours. With a potassium-based particulate fire suppression system, 95-percent of the computers in that burned shipping container still worked.
So far, however, UPS has not elected to install the fire-suppression units in the new ULDs, said Brown, who was the union’s lead representative on the safety improvement committee.
“That’s extremely vital to fire containment,” he said. “When you reintroduce oxygen to the container, the fire comes roaring back without it.”
The MACROLite ULDs are part of a new overall strategy developed by UPS and its pilots. Other measures include:
- 575 fire containment covers for pallets. The company says they, too, can contain a fire for up to four hours.
- Quick-donning, full-face oxygen masks for pilots, which can be put on with one hand in three seconds. UPS plans to have each of its 233 aircraft equipped with the new masks by the end of next year.
- Emergency Vision Assurance System ( EVAS). UPS has equipped all of its 747-400 aircraft with these systems that allow pilots to see out of the windscreen as well as their primary flight instruments even when the cockpit is filled with smoke.
“Fire onboard an aircraft has long been a top concern for the National Transportation Safety Board,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “We commend UPS for implementing this real-world solution that addresses our recommendations.”