Fire On Board

When you look at some of the cargo carriers, they’re operating airplanes that are 30 and 40 and even 50 years old.

They’re still reliable airplanes.

They’ve been maintained.

They’ve been retrofitted with modern-day equipment.

But sometimes installing a new component in an older plane can lead to tragedy.

On September the 2nd 1998, the passenger jet crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada into the Atlantic Ocean.

The cockpit voice recorder gives investigators their first critical clues.

Captain: Do you smell something?
First Officer: Yeah. What is that?
Captain: Go have a look. I’ll take the controls.
First Officer: Roger, you have control.

The first officer checks the area around the air conditioning vent. Nothing seems wrong.

First Officer: I don’t see anything, Urs.  There’s nothing up there now.

Captain Zimmermann is troubled by the smell of smoke.

Captain: There it is again!

He starts to divert the plane to the nearest airport.

Captain: Find the closest place to land, Stephan.

He radios Air Traffic Control in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Captain: Moncton Center, Swiss Air 111 Heavy is declaring Pan Pan Pan. We have smoke in the cockpit.

PAN PAN PAN is an international term used to notify Air Traffic Control of an urgent situation.

It’s one step below declaring MAYDAY.

Swiss Air 111 is directed to Halifax and starts its descent.

The pilots appear calm and in control. Halifax is just 20 minutes away.

But the seemingly controlled situation on board Swiss Air Flight 111 escalates into a full-scale emergency.

Captain: Autopilot disconnect.

Shortly after declaring an emergency the plane goes silent.

…wreckage recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.

Finally they find scorch marks which reveal that the source of the fire was in the back of the cockpit, directly behind the first officer.

Following this trail leads the team to an unlikely suspect; the entertainment system in First Class.

The Swiss Air MD-11s provided First Class with one of the world’s most
sophisticated entertainment systems.

Passengers in First Class could choose their own movies, access the internet and even gamble.

This entertainment system was not part of the original MD-11 design.

The system had some major deficiencies.

It was getting very hot. It drew a lot of power; and thereby, for example, raising the cabin temperature considerably, because it was always running.

Any time you have an electrical system or you’re putting an after-market install into an airplane you run the risk of compromising the integrity of the aircraft itself, as it was originally designed.

When informed about the flaw in the wiring, Swiss Air immediately disabled the entertainment system on the rest of its fleet.

1) What allows many air companies to operate aircraft that are 30 or 40 years old?
Perfect maintenance and modern-day equipment allow air companies to operate aircraft that are 30 or 40 years old.
2) According to the expert, does updating old aircraft always improve their performance?
Updating old aircraft doesn’t always improve the aircraft performance and even leads to accidents.
3) What did the investigation of the crash in 1998 start with?
Investigation of the crash started with deciphering of the cockpit voice recorder.
4) What symptoms in the cockpit alerted the crew about a problem?
Smell of smoke alerted the crew about the problem.
5) What actions did the First Officer take in that situation? Was he able to find anything wrong?
The First Officer checked the area around the air conditioning vent. He was unable to find anything wrong.
6) What decision was taken by the Captain? Why? What are the required actions of the flight crew in case of fire onboard?
Captain transmitted PAN PAN signal and decided to divert to the nearest aerodrome due to smell of smoke in the cockpit. In case of fire on board the crew have to find source of fire, switch off faulty equipment and try to put out the fire. The crew must inform ATC about the situation on board and request emergency descent and landing at the nearest airport.
7) What did the flight crew declare? What does PAN PAN mean?
Flight crew declared PAN PAN signal. PAN PAN is international term, used to notify air traffic control of an urgent situation. It is one-step below declaring mayday.
8) What instructions did the crew receive from the ATC?
The crew received instructions for forced landing at Halifax aerodrome and descent clearance.
9) Were they able to divert to the alternate airdrome? Why?
They had taken heading to Halifax before the fire behind workstation of First Officer appeared.
10) How did the situation develop? What were the pilots able to do to save the flight?
Shortly after declaring emergency the fire appeared behind the First Officer’s seat. I suppose the pilots were able to deactivate all non-critical electrical systems onboard when they smelled a smoke.
11) Where did the investigators find the origin of the fire?
The investigators found the origin of the fire directly behind the first officer.
12) How did the entertainment system cause the fire? What measures were taken by the airline after the crash?
The entertainment system was getting very hot of power and thereby raising the cabin temperature considerately because it was always running. Swiss air immediately disabled entertainment system on the rest of its fleet after the crash.
13) What other emergencies can occur during flight? What are their possible reasons? Are there any ways for preventing emergency situations during flight?
During flight can occur hydraulic failures, electrical failures, engine failures, instrument failures, fuel system failures. These failures are most dangerous because all of them can make aircraft out of control and lead to crash. Possible reasons for these situations are different and depend of aircraft type and equipment. Usually ways to prevent emergency situations during flight are described in flight operations manual.