Aircraft Incidents: Looking For The Answers

Joseph Louderback shows the rigors involved in testing aircraft “black boxes.”


Tim Marker watches fires burn whenever he gets the chance. That’s because it’s his job as an aerospace engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Pomona, NJ. This sprawling, 5,000-acre complex, next to Atlantic City International Airport, is the...


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Tim Marker watches fires burn whenever he gets the chance. That’s because it’s his job as an aerospace engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Pomona, NJ. This sprawling, 5,000-acre complex, next to Atlantic City International Airport, is the national test base for flight programs devoted to fire safety, air traffic control and navigation.

Marker works out of Building 275, a large hangar-like structure that serves as the Fire Safety Section’s test site. Inside, they do just about everything they can to destroy an airplane. The goal: to develop a flame-resistant aircraft and eliminate fire as a cause of death during aviation incidents. When a World Airways DC-10 veered off an icy runway in Boston, MA, on Jan. 23, 1982, two passengers died in the crash. The plane got a new lease on life as a permanent resident of Building 275. Stripped of its wings, it’s one of two test aircraft that face one aviation disaster after another. Burned over and over again, its seats have been torched, sprinklers have soaked its cabin and a rear cargo area has been incinerated a dozen times.

Marker and fellow engineers attempt to stimulate actual fire conditions in a controlled environment. The darkened test floor reeks from the smoke of hundreds of fires. A large “pan” or “trough” sits between the two planes, ready to funnel the jet fuel that can simulate any number of scenarios. Overlooking the floor is a control room where engineers run the experiment from a high-tech console. Specially placed cameras and smoke meters record burn characteristics while thermocouples relay vital heat statistics. Images from a half-dozen cameras appear on a bank of monitors. Video recorders preserve the test for review. Engineers can regulate fuel supply and the carbon dioxide and AFFF foam extinguishing systems by flipping console switches.

The team tests anything that can retard the spreading of flames. A special fire-blocking liner received a baptism of fire here — it now surrounds the foam pad inside the seats on all commercial airliners. Technicians study airplane bathroom trash receptacles and look for a replacement for ozone-depleting halon extinguishing systems. They continue to study fire-resistant cargo hold liners and are currently testing the aluminum skin covering the aircraft. Technically, the mission is called “Aircraft Postcrash Fire Burnthrough Resistance” but it’s viewed simply as the interval for fire to penetrate three fuselage shell members: the aluminum skin, the thermal acoustical insulation and the sidewall panel/cabin flooring.

A mere 60 seconds is all it takes for fuel-fired flames to penetrate a cabin. It can also penetrate through windows, air grills and skin seams but the aluminum skin can melt away in 20 seconds to a minute. To increase those odds, the team is testing new fiberglass insulation that could serve as a burn through barrier. They’ve learned that it could provide an additional one to two minutes of protection if it completely covers a fire area and remains in place. Hence, securing the insulation to the structural members in the fuselage is important.

“Black Boxes”

One of the most exciting recent test burns focused on the flight data recorder, a two-foot-long unit that works in tandem with the cockpit voice recorder and serves as the primary investigative record of a flight. The latter is a type of “open mike” in the cockpit that logs the flight crew’s discussions, cockpit noise and radio transmissions.

Flight data recorders, commonly called “black boxes,” have been around since the early 1970s, according to William Hardman, director of marketing at Lockheed Martin Advanced Recorders, a Sarasota, FL-based company that produces about 70 percent of the 40,000 units flying today.

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