Where there is smoke…

The FAA’s directive said that recent research conducted by its scientists shows that when batteries – both lithium metal and lithium ion – are exposed to high temperatures they have the potential to create “thermal runaway,” a chain reaction leading to selfheating and the release of a battery’s stored energy. A cargo compartment fire can […]


The FAA’s directive said that recent research conducted by its scientists shows that when batteries – both lithium metal and lithium ion – are exposed to high temperatures they have the potential to create “thermal runaway,” a chain reaction leading to selfheating and the release of a battery’s stored energy. A cargo compartment fire can be hot enough to ignite batteries even if they aren’t involved the initial fire, “creating a risk of a catastrophic event,” the directive said. Once one battery experiences thermal runaway, it generates enough heat to trigger nearby batteries. Aside from explosions that can damage cargo compartments a battery on fire can generate temperatures veryclose to the melting point of aluminum, which is a most unpleasant thought.

The next crucial issue is fire suppression. While virtually all passenger and freighter aircraft carry fire detection equipment in both belly and maindeck cargo holds, typically only belly holds have any form of fire suppression equipment, usually in the form of halon gas. But halon isn’t completely effective for fires caused by lithium metal batteries.

Ask any freight pilot what his biggest worries are when airborne and an onboard fire will likely top the list. Fire suppression systems on the maindeck are overdue, full stop. They won’t be easy to develop – cargo mixes of palatised, unpalatised and ULDs – will make it a challenge. And this will all come at a cost as well – probably why this issue has languished. But we must take our hats off to FedEx for the being the first and only air cargo carrier to develop and implement a specialised maindeck fire suppression system. Seven years in the making, the system will be installed in all its 59 MD-11 aircraft by early 2011 and will also go into all new B777 Freighters.