ARCHIVED - Fighting aircraft fires

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May 05, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario

If a passenger aircraft ever crashes in Ottawa, local firefighters will be ready for action.

Since 2007, a technical officer at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR) in Ottawa has hosted training sessions for Ottawa firefighters, using donated aircraft and components that are now part of NRC-IAR's unique Aircraft Specimen Library.

NRC has provided training on aircraft fires to more than 200 Ottawa firefighters.

NRC has provided training on aircraft fires to more than 200 Ottawa firefighters.

Firefighters have a vital role to play in airplane crashes — even if there are no survivors. "By putting a fire out as early as possible, they make the crash scene safe and help save evidence for the investigators," says Ron Gould of NRC-IAR. "Thus, by training firefighters, we may ultimately help the aerospace industry design safer airplanes."

"We launched our first firefighter training course after the fire department at Ottawa International Airport watched us take the wings off a donated aircraft," adds Gould. "We needed the wings off to move it through the airport fence. Once they were off, we offered the firefighters training on how to cut aircraft structures."

NRC-IAR's Aircraft Specimen Library contains some 1200 documented pieces from about 80 aircraft, representing 27 different civil and military airplanes, including all-metal, hybrid and all-composite pieces. The pieces were selected to be representative of undamaged original, service damaged and repair construction. It's a lending library.

After using the aircraft for research on corrosion and other performance issues, NRC decided to blow it up for the sake of science. In May 2007, Gould and his colleagues staged Canada's first deliberate detonation of a bomb inside a pressurized aircraft. The aim of this exercise was to study the types of fractures caused by explosions as opposed to regular wear and tear — knowledge that could help in future accident investigations.

"About 200 people participated in this event, including security companies, firefighters, bomb squads and forensics," says Gould. "We instrumented the aircraft, filled it with luggage, set off a bomb in a laptop and had a lovely fire — within 80 seconds, you couldn't see inside. For the first time ever, airport firefighters got real experience stabbing their fire hose penetrators into an aircraft hull."

Since then, Gould has provided training to more than 200 local firefighters. Using materials from the library, his courses cover how to safely enter a burning aircraft, and point out common hazards inside. "There are lots of scary things that a firefighter needs to avoid," he says.

Fighting composite fires

Ron Gould is developing a new training program on how to fight fires fuelled by composite materials. This course — the first of its kind in Canada for civilian firefighters — will cover the unique hazards associated with composite components, which are becoming more and more important in aircraft construction.

"Composite components are made of tiny fibrous threads glued together," says Gould. "Each visible thread is made of 3000 filaments. Even if a damaged aircraft doesn't burn, when the composite parts break up, the ends of the little fibres pose a penetration and respiration hazard."

"There is a protocol for determining the hazardous area around a crash site involving a composite-constructed aircraft," he adds. "You place a piece of duct tape on the ground and then pick it up. If there are any fibres on the tape, you've got a problem so you keep moving outwards until you don't."

"For example, firefighters need to know that if an aircraft cabin has been disrupted, there may be chemical oxygen generators lying around," says Gould. "When a passenger yanks on the mask hose to get oxygen, they are actually initiating an internal combustion process in an 'oxygen bomb'. If one of these devices is broken open during a crash, and you step on it, it's running at about 600° C and may be providing oxygen to the fire." Some of the other potential risks include debris from broken cabin windows, damaged composite structures [see box], tire explosions and pressurized containers.

To enter a burning aircraft, firefighters should try the doors first. "If they don't open and the aircraft is broken up, you go through the broken part of the fuselage," says Gould. "Making your own hole should be the last thing you try. Training manuals recommend breaking the cockpit window, but it's too thick. We let firefighters swing their axes and sledges until they learn that you can't enter through the cockpit."

They also learn that the tools used for cars and buildings are useless on airplanes. "The jaws of life don't work. Metal-cutting chainsaws don't work. Air and electric cutters don't work," he says. "The only thing that will work is a gas-powered abrasive circular saw with a wheel diameter large enough to cut through everything at once." Such hands-on experience with full sized training aids is invaluable for preparing firefighters to face aircraft emergencies.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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