Frequently Asked Questions

Before Swissair Flight 111 crashed, the pilot reported an in-flight fire. Have such fires happened before? If they have, do all on board usually die?

[Swissair, Flight # 111, an MD-11, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Nova Scotia, on 9-2-98, with the loss of all 229 lives.]


Fortunately, in-flight fires are rather rare, in comparison to other causes of airline accidents. The more notable ones:

1947, October 24th. A United Airlines DC-6 crashed, while attempting to make an emergency landing at Bryce Canyon, Utah. They almost made it, but the fire burned through the controls just short of the airport, killing all 52 on board.

1947, November 11th. An American Airlines DC-6 successfully made an emergency landing at Gallup New Mexico, after fire broke out in that plane’s air-conditioning system. None of the 25 on board was injured, although the plane sustained major fire damage. The investigation of that near tragedy was eventually combined with the United crash above. Both fires were found to have been caused by the same defect in aircraft design: The improper location of the overflow vent for the #3 alternate fuel tank. When fuel was transferred into the #3 tank, it was possible to have some overflow out of the vent for that tank. The airstream then carried the overflow fuel (very high-octane gasoline) directly into the air intake scoop for the cabin heater. The design and testing of the DC-6 fuel system was found to be deficient and in violation of the Civil Aeronautic Board’s existing regulations.

1948, June 17th. A United Airlines DC-6 crashed near Mt. Carmel, Penn. after the crew discharged CO2, in response to a fire warning, into the cargo compartment. When the nose was lowered, to make an emergency descent to the nearest airport, the CO2 leaked out of the cargo compartment. Since it was heavier than air, it accumulated in the cockpit, asphyxiating the crew. All 43 on board died. The investigation and subsequent litigation revealed that Douglas Aircraft designed a dangerous fire-fighting system and had reason to know it could render the flight crew unconscious. The fix, to correct that danger, was to install a "dishpan" dump valve that would instantly depressurize the airplane as part of the fire-warning checklist. It was located along side of the First Officer’s foot, to allow any CO2 to flow out of the cockpit before it could accumulate to asphyxiation levels.

1964, July 9th. A United Airlines Vickers Viscount 745D, crashed near Pariottsville, Tennessee, killing all 38 onboard. It suffered an uncontrollable fire in flight, which apparently started below the passenger floor. The ignition source was never determined, but some thought the plane’s battery or something in a passenger’s luggage the most likely cause. Like the DC-6, the Viscount had a CO2 fire extinguishing system that proved lethal to the pilots. The CO2 bottles were located behind the F/O’s seat. Testing, after the crash, revealed a lethal amount of CO2 could be discharged into the cockpit even though it was supposed to go into the lower baggage compartment. The fire eventually burned through the controls, but it is likely that everyone was either unconscious or dead prior to ground contact. The plane was seen, flying erratically for a lengthy period of time, before the final plunge.

1967, June 23rd. A Mohawk Airlines BAC 1-11, crashed near Blossburg, Penn., with the loss of all 34 onboard. The plane took off from Elmira, NY, at 1439 EDT, and was cleared direct to Harrisburg, Penn. Acknowledgment of that clearance was the last communication received from that aircraft. 

ATC gave another clearance, at 1444 EDT, to climb to 16,000 ft. The pilots, by that time, were attempting to cope with the loss of pitch control. The CVR tape shows they tried to respond to that clearance, but it was never received by NY center. 

The FDR revealed the plane reached approx 6,000 ft., descended slightly and then climbed up to approx 7,500 ft., leveled off briefly and then dove down to approx 4,000 ft., then back to above 5,000 ft, then it dove again, until it crashed. 

NTSB Selected comments on the CVR: 

1445:15 CAM -1 "We lost all control! -- we don't have anything!" 

1446:37 CAM-1 "What have we done to that damn tail surface, ya have any idea?" 

CAM-2 "I don't know, ah, I, I just can't figure it out." 

1446:44 CAM-2 "Ah, we've lost both systems." 

CAM-1 "Both?" 

1446:47 CAM-1 "I can't keep this--(#)-- from (unintelligible), all right, I'm gonna use both hands now." 

CAM-2 "Okay." 

1446:54 CAM-1 "Pull 'er back, pull 'er (untelligible) [sic] power!" 

1446:55 CAM-1 "Both hands, back, both hands!" 

1447:10 CAM-1 "PULL BACK!" 

1447:11 CAM-1 "I've gone out of control!" 

1447:17 . . . END OF RECORDING 

"The Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the loss of integrity of the empennage pitch control system due to a destructive inflight fire which originated in the airframe plenum chamber and, fueled by hydraulic fluid, progressed up into the vertical fin. The fire resulted from engine bleed air flowing back through a malfunctioning nonreturn valve and an open air delivery valve, through the auxiliary power unit in a reverse direction, and exiting into the plenum chamber at temperatures sufficiently high to cause the acoustics linings to ignite.

The fire destroyed the elevator control rods, the electric elevator trim lead, and both hydraulic systems, thus causing the pilots to lose all control of the pitch of the aircraft. 

The fire ultimately weakened the lower rudder attach fitting and the vertical fin spars to the point where those components failed under normal aerodynamic loading and the rudder, top two feet of the vertical fin, and horizontal tailplane separated in flight."

1971, August 8th. An Aloha Airlines Vickers Viscount 745D flew a routine flight from Hilo, Hawaii to Honolulu, Hawaii. After taxiing clear of the landing runway, the stewardess informed the captain of smoke in the cabin. The fire trucks were called and the passengers evacuated. As the captain was about to leave the cockpit, he noticed he could move the control wheel to the full aft position, even though the control ground lock had been engaged. The subsequent investigation revealed the left nickel-cadmium battery had suffered an undetected short which lead to a thermal runaway. It melted the metal around it so rapidly that the flight control push rods were burned through in about two minutes time. Had that plane still been flying a few minutes more, none of those on board would have ever seen their loved ones again.

1973, July 11th. A Varig Boeing 707, enroute from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, was forced to land short of the runway at Orly airport, only 5 minutes after reporting a fire in the rear of the cabin. The smoke was so thick in the cockpit that the pilot had to look out the opened side windows to make the crash landing. He could not see his instrument panel or out the front windshield. Of the 134 on board, only the 3 pilots, 7 cabin crew and 1 passenger survived. All others were asphyxiated and burned. The accident report found the probable cause to be a fire that originated in the washbasin unit of the aft right toilet, either as a result of an electrical fault or by the carelessness of a passenger. [Editor’s translation: a passenger smoked in the blue room and then threw the lighted cigarette into the trash can.]

1973, November 3rd. A Pan American 707-321C cargoliner, crashed, just short of the runway, at Boston Logan International Airport, killing the 3 pilots on board. Only 30 minutes after taking off from New York’s JFK Airport, the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit. The smoke became so thick that it "…seriously impaired the flightcrew’s vision and ability to function effectively during the emergency." The captain had not been notified that hazardous cargo was aboard. The NTSB said, further, that a contributing factor was:

…the general lack of compliance with existing regulations governing the transportation of hazardous material which resulted from the complexity of the regulations, the industrywide lack of familiarity with the regulations at the working level, the overlapping jurisdictions, and the inadequacy of government surveillance.

1976, August 6th. An Air Chicago Freight Airlines, Inc., TB-25N (B25 bomber converted to a cargo carrier), crashed while attempting an emergency landing at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Both pilots and one person on the ground were killed. The left engine suffered a massive failure in its power section, starting a fire that could not be extinguished. The NTSB found the probable cause of the accident to be:

…the deterioration of the cockpit environment, due to smoke to the extent that the crew could not function effectively in controlling the aircraft under emergency conditions. The smoke and fire, …propagated into the bomb bay area and then into the cockpit.

1980, August 19th. A Saudi Arabian Airlines, L-1011, returned to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and made a successful landing, after reporting a fire in its C-3 cargo compartment. However, after landing, no doors opened and no one evacuated. All 301 souls on board perished, including 15 infants, from the inhalation of toxic fumes and exposure to heat. There were no traumatic injuries. Just prior to landing, the captain ordered his crew not to evacuate and he failed to shut off the engines after the aircraft was stopped. Other findings of the accident investigators:

  • There was an extensive history of fires originating in aircraft cargo compartments where loose baggage and cargo are carried.
  • The cause of the fire could not be determined.
  • The pilots failed to don their oxygen masks.
  • The captain failed to understand the seriousness of the situation.
  • Both the F/O and the F/E had been dropped from their training programs and/or terminated and reinstated. Their actions, during the emergency, were not helpful to the captain. "Reinstatement in a flight position of terminated crew men is not desirable."

1982, February 21st. A Pilgrim Airlines deHavilland DHC-6-100, (commuter flight) made an emergency landing on a frozen reservoir lake after fire erupted in the cockpit. The fire destroyed the aircraft after impact. One passenger was killed, while the captain, F/O and 8 passengers sustained serious injuries. One passenger escaped with only minor injuries. The fire was caused by the "deficient design of the isopropyl alcohol windshield washer/deicer system and the inadequate maintenance of the system…The ignition source of the fire was not determined."

1983, June 2nd. An Air Canada, DC-9-32, made a successful emergency landing at the Cincinnati airport after discovering smoke in the aft lavatory. The NTSB concluded the fire had burned for 15 minutes before the smoke was first detected. Source of the fire could not be determined. Miscommunication, between the captain and the cabin crew, caused a delay in the declaration of an emergency. The NTSB determined the plane could have landed 3 to 5 minutes earlier, at Louisville, if the descent had started as soon as the captain was made aware of the fire. It took only 11 minutes to make the landing, after the emergency descent was first initiated. The smoke was so thick in the cockpit, they had to depressurize and repeatedly open and close the cockpit windows, to see the instrument panel. The captain’s shirt was on fire when he evacuated. Twenty-three, including all the crew, evacuated and survived. But, 23 passengers were overcome by smoke and died as the plane burst into flames shortly after the doors were opened.

1985, December 31st. An in-flight cabin fire forced rock star Rick Nelson’s chartered DC-3 to make a forced landing near De Kalb, Texas. Only the pilots survived, with critical burns. Rick Nelson (son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), his fiancee, four members of his band and his soundman perished in the fire.

1986, March 31st. A Mexicana Airlines B-727, with 166 onboard, crashed after an overheated tire finally exploded in the wheelwell, tearing through fuel lines and electrical wires. The resulting fire eventually rendered the aircraft uncontrollable. There were no survivors.

1987, November 28th. A South African Airways 747-244B Combi (both a freighter and passenger liner at the same time), while enroute from Taipei to Johannesburg, crashed into the ocean approximately 150 miles northeast of the island of Mauritius, after the pilot reported smoke and the loss of much of the electrical system. All 159 on board were killed. The breakup of the plane was so extensive, only five bodies could be identified. Only the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was recovered. That, along with the video tape of the wreckage on the ocean floor, and the recovery of a few parts, enabled investigators to conclude the fire had started in the front pallet area of the upper deck cargo hold. They could not determine what started the fire.

1988, February 3rd. An American Airlines, DC-9-83 captain received a report from a flight attendant that smoke was present in the cabin. The cabin floor, above the midcargo compartment was hot and soft, requiring the flight attendants to move passengers away from the affected area. The captain, aware of a previous flight’s problem with the auxiliary power unit, which caused in-flight fumes, was skeptical about her smoke report. Thus, he did not declare an emergency and completed the flight in a normal manner. However, after landing at Nashville, he called for fire equipment to meet the plane. The flight attendants then evacuated all 126 on board while fire crews extinguished the cargo compartment fire. That compartment was found to contain a 104-pound fiber drum of textile treatment chemicals. The undeclared and improperly packaged hazardous materials included 5 gallons of hydrogen peroxide solution and 25 pounds of sodium orthosilicate-based mixture. The NTSB determined the fire was caused by the hydrogen peroxide, in a concentration prohibited for air transportation.

1988, July 27th. A Peninsula Airways Metro Liner III (commuter flight), took off from the Anchorage, Alaska airport and soon detected a wheelwell fire. The pilot wasted no time in making an emergency landing back at the same airport. All 8 on board escaped injury. It was a very close call. The fire burned through the left aileron control tube and engine nacelle. The left wing flap was damaged and the left fuel tank was severely scorched from excessive heat. "The flight did not end in a catastrophic explosion because the tank was nearly full of fuel and the fuel-air mixture in the tank was too rich to support combustion at the early stage of the flight."

1990, January 5th. A passenger checked three boxes weighing a total of 455 pounds, from Anchorage, Alaska, to his address in San Francisco. He labeled them "personal effects." When the cargo was being off-loaded from that passenger plane, shotgun shells fell out of a cardboard box. The cargo handlers took the shipment to an FAA special agent. Upon further inspection, that agent found an extensive variety of rifle and shotgun ammunition, signal flares, a camping lantern with gas in the tank, a can of butane fuel, primer caps, smokeless black powder, and CO2 cartridges. The majority of the ammo appeared to be quite old and had corrosion on the shells. I have never heard of what, if any, action was being taken on that case.

1991, July 11th. A Nationair DC-8-61, an international charter flight from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Sokoto, Nigeria, crashed as it attempted to return to Jeddah. All 261 on board died as the in-flight fire burned through the control cables while the plane was on its final landing approach. Some bodies fell out of the plane while it was descending through 2,200 ft. The plane took off with some tires under-inflated. It was not known if the captain was made aware of that situation. A long taxi, combined with a hot day, caused the tires to fail on the takeoff roll. The resulting tire-fire spread into the aircraft after the gear was raised. The captain’s delay in turning back to the airport, once he was aware of smoke in the cabin, may have sealed the fate of everyone on board.

1996, May 11th. A Valujet DC-9, crashed only minutes after takeoff from the Miami Airport. It is probable that the fire was burning in the cargo hold, fed by an illegal shipment of oxygen generators, before the plane took off. There was no warning, until the flight attendants yelled to the cockpit that the cabin was on fire, because the plane was not equipped with fire/smoke detectors or a fire suppression system for its cargo compartments. The FAA had refused to act on many previous recommendations, by the NTSB, which would have required smoke detectors and fire suppression systems in all passenger liner cargo compartments. The NTSB said that oxygen generators had been tied to at least 3 previous airline fires. In 1986, an American Trans Air DC-10 in Chicago, was destroyed by the fire that erupted from just one oxygen generator which was still in the back of a seat being shipped in its cargo compartment. Fortunately, the fire occurred while the plane was being serviced, so there were no injuries. The FAA did not disseminate the information, learned from that fire, to the airlines with enough emphasis on how dangerous oxygen generators can be. Nor did the FAA ban them from shipment on passenger liners until after the Valujet crash, which killed all 106 onboard.

1996, September 5th. Federal Express DC-10 Cargoliner. The crew declared an emergency and landed as fast as possible after becoming aware of smoke coming from the cargo hold. They escaped with their lives, but the plane was destroyed by the fire that spread rapidly after they evacuated. The fire came from hazardous material aboard, but the NTSB is still not certain of the ignition source.

1996. I was reviewing the flight papers for my planned flight from Paris, Charles de Gaulle Airport, to Washington, Dulles Airport, when I was handed a Hazardous Materials manifest which informed me that "auto parts" had been loaded in the cargo compartment of our B-777 passenger liner. I asked the agent "what is hazardous about auto parts?" He flipped some pages in his manual and said "they are starters." I inquired further; he flipped some more pages and replied "engine starters." I still didn’t understand why engine starters would be considered hazardous material. He flipped some more pages and declared "they are cartridges." With a bit more persistence, I was finally able to determine that they had boarded 24 pounds (net weight, excluding the packaging) of EXPLOSIVES! The "auto parts" were actually large explosive cartridges that generated enough force to turn over a large piston aircraft engine several times. I remembered the Flight of the Phoenix, where they had only a few of those cartridges to start the engine, after they built a new plane out of the wreckage of the one in which they crashed. I couldn’t believe such a shipment was legal on a twin-engine passenger airliner that had to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, hours from any emergency airports. The agent assured me it was legal. He said the FAA had granted a "special exemption" for my airline to carry those explosives in our cargo compartment. I told him they didn’t get any special exemption from me. I ordered the removal of those cartridges. To this day I cannot understand how the FAA could allow such a shipment, much less to permit explosives to be labeled as "auto parts."

For additional information on in-flight fires, go to the Air Safety Forum.

September, 1998, revised August, 2002, & December 1, 2004.

[All emphasis is that of the author]

Robert J. Boser    

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