A UPS 747-400 freighter crashed in Dubai last week after attempting at least one and possibly two approaches in VFR conditions. It’s early in the investigation so my usual disclaimer applies – It’s never too early to speculate and these comments may be completely off base. The crew reported smoke in the cockpit and returned to airport of origin. They were aloft for quite awhile after declaring the problem as opposed to diverting to some reportedly closer airports. So let the Monday morning quarterbacking begin.
If this had worked out the crew would have been hailed as decision-making heroes. It didn’t – so there will likely be some responsibility/blame somewhere. Would a divert to a closer airport worked better? Too soon to say. The flight was aloft for about 30 minutes after the crew declared an emergency – this was about 20 minutes after takeoff.
I’ll offer some opinions and you can feel free to chime in: Fire anywhere on an aircraft outside the engine(s) combustion chamber is a very big deal. It does bad things to the airframe and the occupants – often very quickly. Late reports indicate that the fire may have started in the cargo area. Kind of makes you think about what you might be carrying. Freighter crews do not have the luxury of knowing for sure and must depend on the integrity of the shippers and the handlers that hazmat materials are appropriately marked and managed.
I’ve never had a fire on board but the general guidance is to get it on the ground – quickly. According to a Wall St. Journal article there are about 1,000 reported fires or smoke on board transport category aircraft annually. Obviously this ranges from minor smoke smell to the real McCoy . Most of the time it all works out but this time not.
The NASCAR Cessna 310 landmark accident in Florida perfectly illustrates the point. On electrical fires the guidance these days is that when a circuit breaker pops – do NOT reset unless it is flight critical. There was a reason for an overload to occur and that troubleshooting should take place on the ground. Fuel fires, burning tires, and cabin fires are no less critical.
We would be curious to hear of any smoke or fire experiences from you or from pilots you know. My sense is that treating these problems as a very big deal is appropriate. Things can go from “not too bad” to “Aw Shucks” in less than a minute or two.