smoke on board - fire on board

What happens when? – Smoke and fire on board

Tim Takeoff
4 minutes

In our new series “What happens when?” we present some common questions to the cockpit crew and go a little deeper into the details. Today: What does the crew do in case of smoke and fire in the aircraft?

Recognizing the danger

It is certainly one of the most dangerous situations on board a commercial aircraft: fire. It can spread quickly and the options of extinguishing it are limited. If smoke is detected on board, the most important step has already been taken: recognising the situation.

Fire loops and smoke detectors

Smoke or fire on board always means highest caution for the crew. Fire in the most important areas of the aircraft can even be reported in the cockpit by so-called “fire loops”, which react to temperature. The engines, the APU or the landing gear are equipped with these loops. Every commercial aircraft has highly accurate smoke detectors in the cabin, cockpit, crew rest areas, toilets and, of course, cargo holds.

Extinguishing systems

If one of these systems, or even a passenger or cabin crew member, reports to the cockpit, the problem is addressed immediately. On the ground, the fire brigade can rush to the rescue. In the air, the possibilities are very limited. Pilots can fight a fire in an engine with the help of permanently installed fire extinguishers. They can literally separate the engine with all its connections from the aircraft. All lines, such as electricity, compressed air and kerosene, close off. Up to two fire extinguishing units can be “shot down” into an engine. This is then extinguished immediately and does not continue to burn in the best case. An immediate alternative landing is necessary in any case.

Some aircraft types also have such extinguishing systems in their cargo holds. In most cases, a bottle is emptied immediately and completely into the room. Another one follows slowly to suppress possible embers and to bridge the time until landing.

Checklists for fire fighting

If the source of the fire cannot be identified immediately, the pilots use various checklists to help them. These checklists lead the crew step by step to a solution. It may even be necessary to put on the breathing masks in the cockpit before firefighting can begin. Meanwhile, the crew already flies to an alternative airport when searching for the fire.

If the fire turns out to be uncontrollable, valuable time can be saved. On the way there, various systems are switched off to prevent the spread of smoke. In the cockpit there is always a higher air pressure due to the air conditioning system in order to keep it as smoke-free as possible, even in the worst case, and so that it can escape to the rear.

Small fires quickly under control

If there is only a fire in a toilet, a defective electronic device or small burning objects, the crew can use the fire extinguishers on board to bring the fire under control. The entire crew is very well trained in firefighting and knows how to fight a visible fire on board with the right means in an emergency. Additional smoke protection masks and breathing air are available for this purpose. A burning smartphone can thus be quickly brought under control in a catering box with the help of fire extinguishers.

The fire brigade takes over on the ground

Back on the ground, the colleagues of the fire brigade can immediately take over and arrange everything else. Should the aircraft have to be evacuated, the crew will also consider the side of a fire so as not to inflate the emergency slides on the wrong side. A burning APU can even be fought on the ground with the help of permanently installed extinguishers.

Never hesitate, but report!

Should you ever get into the situation and discover smoke, don’t hesitate to draw the attention of the on-board personnel! Usually it is only a little smoke from the air conditioning in hot countries that causes a gentle cloud of smoke in the cabin.

If you want to know more about the pressure supply in the airplane, read our article about it!

by Tim Takeoff

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