Tulsa pilot: Lithium fires pose danger to aviation
By Kent Faith
Copyright © 2016, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
You can call it spontaneous combustion. Or self-igniting fires. Or the explosive nature of lithium ion batteries. For the world’s aviation industry, the ubiquitous lithium battery presents a clear and present danger every day on every commercial flight.
Virtually every passenger carries at least one device onto an aircraft, whether it is a smartphone, tablet, movie player or even light-up sneakers worn by children.
The recent recall of more than 1 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones highlights the challenge that lithium battery-powered devices present to aircraft crews and industry regulators. Multiple reports of Note 7 phones bursting into flame spontaneously prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict their use even before they were recalled en masse.
But the danger to crew and passengers aboard aircraft goes far beyond one particular brand of phone. In 2013, the Royal Aeronautical Society estimated that in a 100-seat jet, as many as 500 lithium batteries would likely be aboard, most of them in the cabin.
If one of those devices bursts into flame, passengers just can’t walk away. Not at 35,000 feet.
The question that remains unanswered by the FAA is how airline crews will manage a lithium fire when the next one inevitably breaks out aboard their aircraft. Here is how the FAA currently directs the crew to battle a lithium fire:
“You may use a carbonated beverage as a fire extinguisher by shaking up the can or bottle, opening the top, and spraying the contents at the base of the fire.”
I looked back through the mountain of documents I have on this subject and haven’t discovered any fire testing data on cans of soda from the FAA Fire Safety Branch. Yet that is the suggested method of extinguishing a lithium battery fire aboard a commercial aircraft.
A lithium battery that ignites can reach temperatures of 1,100 degrees and higher. Aluminum, which is what airplanes are made of, has a melting point of 1,220 degrees.
Water is no extinguisher of lithium fires, either. The French BEA, that nation’s equivalent to the National Transportation Safety Board, concluded that “there is no consensus on the procedure to apply, specifically the use of water during the extinction of flames.”
I’m amazed the FAA continues to suggest the use of water or “nonalcoholic liquid” when the use of a fire extinguishing agent specific to this kind of fire would be preferred.
It’s not just the FAA that is lacking a proven solution to fighting lithium battery fires. It’s a worldwide danger that hasn’t been appropriately addressed by other regulatory agencies, as well.
But there are chemical agents that have been proven effective in extinguishing lithium battery fires. And it’s past time that regulators take action to address lithium fires with more than a can of soda.
Let’s put the fire out for good.
Faith is a commercial airline pilot and CEO of Tulsa-based SpectrumFX, which markets a proven fire suppression agent in a product called the LIFE Kit.