Aviation In Canada

Monday, January 31, 2005

Smoke in the Cockpit

In Moncton Center, we're in the midst of recurrent training. Each year, ATC in Canada are required to undergo a refresher which addresses topics that are deemed essential for refresher, and some local items also creep in (though we would like to see more of this stuff). This year, in-flight emergencies are being addressed once again.

Swissair's flight 111, the MD-11 that crashed into the waters off Nova Scotia in 1998, is one incident that hits close to home for Moncton Center. Simply because it was close to home. The aircraft suffered a catastrophic in-flight fire, ultimately leading to the loss of 229 lives about 25NM off the coast of Nova Scotia, a province on the east coast of Canada. As one controller who worked the flight said, it's a tough feeling to describe. The idea of watching a radar target, knowing the situation, and being able to do absolutely nothing about it. The fire broke out and consumed the cockpit so quickly that there was literally no chance of a safe landing. Though many people have their own opinions on how things "should have gone", I have yet to find an argument which would have led to a safe landing. Some say the pilots should have driven right into the airport, landing overweight. Flight data recorders along with a radar timeline have proven that the aircraft drove in very fast all the way down, and yet still wouldn't have made the airport given the time they had before impact.

Speaking of time, one thing our guys found in researching reports for their presentation struck me as very interesting. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board researched in-flight fires in incidents between 1967 and 1998, and found the average time between the detection of an in-flight fire and the forced landing, ditching or crash of the aircraft was a mere 17 minutes. They ignored safe landings, since these were not reflective of what happened in the Swissair 111 incident. Of the 15 incidents examined, some lasted as much as 20 minutes, while some lasted less than 10. Swissair 111 made the average. When they detected the fire, they were 20 minutes from the runway. Had they made a run for the airport, it is likely they would have plummetted into downtown Bedford, probably killing many more on the ground, too.

Here's the link to the Transportation Safety Board's website and the report where I found this. The study is mentioned in Appendix A, but the rest is worth a read, too. Have a look: