Airplane fires are still “craft” stage

I just presented some of my research on how flying went from Art to Science, at the INFORMS conference. (Very short paper  at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2sj362h9. Long working paper is coming soon.)  My colleague Erica Fuchs related a recent experience that demonstrates how certain activities in flying are still at what I call the “Rules + Instruments” stage, which got started in the 1930s.

During a flight to Chicago, she noticed a “bad smell.” One of the other passengers was an off-duty airline pilot who also noticed it, and went rocketing up to the cockpit to tell the pilots.  The result: they landed immediately, at an unused airport near their flight path.  A mechanic flew in and found that one of the light ballasts had overheated, producing the smell. He replaced it, and they proceeded.

Ten years ago, this would  have been treated much less urgently. “Bad electrical smell” is not very specific. But a few recent tragedies have focused attention on the problem of fuselage fires. The sobering insights were that 1) we still don’t have good instruments for detecting or locating fires in some parts of an aircraft  – the human nose is still the best we have,  2) most burning smells are not serious problems, but when there really is a fire, sometimes the only effective countermeasure is to land; 3) every minute counts.

Pilots used to follow an elaborate checklist, attempting to diagnose and solve the problem in flight, but in a couple of cases that gave the fire time enough to take hold and destroy the aircraft. So on her flight, the procedure apparently was “when you can’t identify the source, land as fast as possible.” Does anyone know what the “official” checklists look like now, for this situation?

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