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Why Are Commercial Planes Catching Fire?

Dynamic Airways Flight 405 catches fire in Ft. Lauderdale, injuring 21 people...British Airways Flight 2276 catches fire in Las Vegas, injuring 15...Cathay Pacific Flight CX170 catches fire mid-flight, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing in Indonesia.

We like to think these commercial airliner fires only happen sparingly. Would it surprise you to know that the three incidents listed above happened within a couple weeks of one another?

Dynamic Airways Flight 405 

It was two weeks ago today that Dynamic Airways Flight 405 caught fire while the Boeing 767-200 was taxiing to a runway for departure at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. Dynamic Airways Flight 405 was carrying 101 passengers and crew members to Caracas, Venezuela when the plane fire erupted just after 12:30 p.m. local time.

Dynamic-Air.jpgAccording to various reports, 21 people aboard the Dynamic plane were rushed to Broward Health Medical Center with various injuries, including a four-year-old boy and a 62-year-old man, who suffered a head injury. Two flight attendants were among those injured. Both were taken to the hospital with minor injuries and later released.

Dynamic 405 was preparing to take off when the occupants of another plane saw fuel leaking from the left engine of the Boeing 767-200. In recorded communications with air traffic controllers, the Dynamic pilots are told of the fuel leak before someone shouted, "Engine's on fire! Engine's on fire!"

Thus far in the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, officials have said the Boeing 767-200's main fuel supply line disconnected "in the wing-to-engine strut above and behind the left engine." Eyewitness accounts to the Ft. Lauderdale incident attributed the source of the fire to be the 767-200's left Pratt & Whitney JT9D engine. However, investigators have not been able to find evidence of "engine uncontainment" or other failures.

British Airways Flight 2276 

It was just before 4:00 p.m. on the afternoon of September 8, 2015 when British Airways Flight 2276 pulled out of Terminal 3, Gate E3 at Las Vegas McCarran Airport. The plane, which was filled with 157 passengers and 13 crew members, was flying to London, England. Almost 20 minutes after leaving the gate, the pilots of the British Airways flight initiated take off.

It only took a few seconds for the pilots to notice what would later be described as catastrophic engine failure. According to reports, the pilots (to their credit) wasted no time: they initiated the brakes on the Boeing 777-200ER and ordered an evacuation. Media reports would later say that the plane was going about 89 miles-per-hour when the call was made to hit the brakes. If the plane had been going above 180 miles-per-hour, the pilots would have been forced to take off regardless of the problem, due to the short runway.

Passengers aboard BA 2276 recalled looking out the windows to see smoke rising near the wing of the plane. Jacob Steinberg, a writer with the Guardian British newspaper, remembered smelling burning rubber and thinking, "it was time to panic."

Emergency teams at McCarran were able to put out the fire within about five minutes of the pilots' mayday call. Fourteen people sustained injuries. Many were hurt sliding down the escape chutes, and treated at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas. The fire reportedly caused a massive hole in the cargo hold and damage to the engine.

On October 6, the NTSB issued an investigative update, which said that the accident was traced to the failure of the "stage 8-10 spool in the high-pressure compressor section" which liberated fragments that breached the engine case and cowling. According to the Daily Mail, Boeing had warned that the engine in question (a General Electric engine) was 'unsafe' roughly four years ago.

Cathay Pacific Flight CX170 

On September 25, 2015, a Cathay Pacific flight from Perth, Australia to Hong Kong was forced to make an emergency landing in Bali after passengers saw flames and sparks coming from the Airbus A330 aircraft's engine at 36,000 feet. The airline denied that there was a fire to one of the plane's engines, however, passengers told the media otherwise.

Passenger Joel Sirna told 6PR radio that he heard a loud bang and the Airbus A330 began to shake. He went on to say that all the lights went out and when he looked, he saw some flames and some sparks. The engine and the wing, Sirna said, were on fire.

In a statement following the incident, Cathay Pacific confirmed that witnesses saw light due to the engine failure, though "not a real fire." In any case, some passengers aboard the flight were terrified. Sirna said some people screamed, others were shaking and crying.

Little information has been issued since this incident occurred. Cathay Pacific is conducting its own investigation.

Why Do Plane Engine Fires Happen? 

Officials are still investigating what circumstances led to the above incidents, and final reports on the U.S. investigations won't be made public for at least a year. One thing investigators will without question be focusing their attention on is the maintenance of these planes.

While we'll have to wait and see whether faulty maintenance was a contributing factor in any of these incidents, a disturbing new trend in commercial airline maintenance has left aviation safety advocates concerned.

Many of the top U.S. airlines are now outsourcing major maintenance work to places like El Salvador, Mexico, and China, where the work is performed on the cheap by a large number of mechanics who aren't certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). At El Salvador's Aeroman maintenance facility, only one out of every eight mechanics is FAA-certified. At a heavy maintenance facility in China, only one in 31 mechanics is FAA-certified. In contrast, back when U.S. airlines performed their own maintenance at their own facilities, FAA-certified mechanics outnumbered those without certification.

According to the latest numbers, there are currently 731 FAA-certified foreign maintenance repair facilities around the globe, and it is all but impossible to know how many qualified workers they have in their employ. This is in large part due to an underfunded FAA that simply doesn't have the ability to drop in and inspect all of these facilities. It used to be that an FAA inspector could just drive to an airline's hangar and conduct a surprise inspection. But today, the inspectors who are responsible for overseeing the work performed by repair and maintenance facilities in Beijing, for example, are thousands of miles away.

Worse yet, inspector proximity is only a part of the issue here: in order for inspectors to visit a foreign facility, they have to get permission from that nation, then inform the government when they plan to arrive to conduct the inspection-all of the surprise is gone.

As of this writing, it is unknown whether Dynamic Airways outsources maintenance. In a 2008 annual report, British Airways said the airline has significant "in-house engineering capability to support our fleet, but we also outsource maintenance where it is higher quality or more competitive to do so." Cathay Pacific also said in an annual report that the airline's "outsourced activities include aircraft maintenance," as well as "engine maintenance."

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