Cabin airplane fires are one of the most dangerous situations a flight crew can face. An in-flight fire can lead to the loss of the aircraft within a short amount of time. Flight crews must take assertive action. Data from a UK CAA report in 2002 found that from the first indication of an onboard fire, the crew has on average 17 minutes to get the aircraft on the ground.
Research also shows that an unconfined fire can destroy an aircraft in as few as 20 minutes. Fire can completely consume a smoke-filled cabin in as few as 6-10 minutes. Time is critical when fighting in-flight fires.
Crew members should first use a portable fire extinguisher when fire is visible within the cabin. The goal is to extinguish the fire as fast as possible to prevent toxic smoke and fumes from spreading through the aircraft. Halon fire extinguishers are most commonly used on aircrafts since halon is a multipurpose (extinguishes classes A, B, & C fires) agent.
Most commercial aircraft have the following fire detection/firefighting equipment:
- Smoke detectors– Optical smoke detectors are installed in the lavatories and cargo compartments.
- Portable fire extinguishers– Portables are stored in the cabin and cockpit of the airplane.
- Automatic fire extinguishing systems– Type of system will vary by aircraft; some planes have automatic suppression systems while others have manual systems.
- Insulated crowbars– These tools can be used to locate hidden fires; typically stored in the cabin/cargo compartment.
- Fire protection gloves– Gloves are kept in the flight deck and protect against heat/fire.
- Smoke protection devices– Devices vary by cabin; Protective Breathing Equipment (PBE) or a Smoke Hood provides passengers with oxygen for a short amount of time.
- Fire blankets– Some flights are equipped with fireproof blankets used to suffocate smaller fires.
All aircraft is required to have emergency equipment for fire extinguishment. Crewmembers can also use other means to extinguish fires. Non-flammable liquids can extinguish small fires like those caused by electronic devices. Extinguishing these fires is important to prevent battery cells from reaching thermal runaway (which can cause an explosion).