On 18 July 2013, the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) released a special bulletin related to the 12 July 2013 fire on an Ethiopian Airlines 787 at London's Heathrow airport. The AAIB made two safety recommendations, the first was to advise the FAA to initiate action to have 787 operators deactivate the emergency locator transmitter (ELT), and the second was to have the FAA conduct a safety review of the installation of ELTs in other aircraft where the ELTs are also powered by lithium batteries.
While the AAIB does not have any authority to implement these recommendations, it is very likely that the FAA, Boeing, and all of the 787 operators will respond relatively quickly to the recommendations.
AAIB summary of the fire
The AAIB special bulletin contained the following key information about the events leading up to the fire:
- The Ethiopian Airlines 787 landed at Heathrow at 0527 hours on 12 July 2013 after an uneventful flight, with no technical problems reported by the crew.
- After it was towed to a parking area, external power was turned off, and the aircraft was left unpowered.
- An employee in the air traffic control tower noticed smoke coming from the aircraft at 1534 hours, and fire fighters arrived about one minute later.
- After a fire crew entered the aircraft, they observed indications of fire above the ceiling panels, and had to move a ceiling panel in order to put out the fire.
- A later examination revealed extensive heat damage in the rear fuselage in the crown area, just to the left of the centerline, an area which coincided with the location of the ELT.
- The ELT, which was powered by a set of chemical batteries containing a Lithium-Manganese Dioxide composition, was the only aircraft system in that area that had the potential to initiate a fire when the aircraft was unpowered.
About emergency locator transmitters
ELTs are battery-powered radio transmitters that are carried aboard airliners, other civil aircraft, and most military aircraft. Thay are designed to survive most accidents, and to transmit a signal that can be used by rescue crews and even satellite-based monitors to locate a crash site. The FAA requires the use of ELTs on commercial airliners.
According to the AAIB, the manufacturer of the ELT associated with the recent 787 fire (Honeywell) has produced about 6,000 ELTs for use in a wide range of aircraft, and this the first time the manufacturer has what the AAIB calls a 'thermal event.'
The ELTs used by Boeing in the 787 are all made by Honeywell, and they are powered by a set of five non-rechargeable batteries, each of which is roughly the size of a common household "D" cell battery.
What's next for the 787
There are currently 68 787 aircraft flying with 13 operators around the world. Although the FAA has not made a formal request for airlines to implement the AAIB recommendations, it is likely that Boeing and the airlines will take action relatively quickly. If the recommended actions are taken, in the short term 787s may be flying without ELTs.
While flying without ELTs may make it harder to find an aircraft that has an emergency in an unpopulated area, the FAA can allow airliners to fly for short periods of time without a working ELT, so implementing these AAIB recommendations will likely not cause the FAA to ground the 787. Other regulatory bodies around the world typically follow the actions of the FAA in situations such as this one.
Media interviews with Dr. Todd Curtis about the Asiana 777 crash
The following three interviews with Dr. Curtis were made in the days immediately following the crash of Asiana flight 214
- Bloomberg television interview 8 July 2013
- AirSafeNews.com 15 July 2013 article with common questions about the 777 investigation
- AirSafeNews.com 13 July 2013 summarizing the two prior NTSB press conferences
- AirSafeNews.com 10 July 2013 article on the role of the autothrottle
- AirSafeNews.com 8 July 2013 article on early findings of the crash investigation
- Dr. Todd Curtis and Capt. Tomm Bunn discuss the crash on 7 July 2013
- Other Asiana plane crashes
- Other 777 plane crashes
- Accident details from Aviation Safety Network
- Wikipedia page on this accident