Crash-Resistant Fuel Systems
Years ago as a first lieutenant and U.S. Army aviator, I had the privilege to attend a short course at Arizona State University titled the Aircraft Crash Survival Investigator’s Course.
I think that course is now a part of the Robertson Safety Institute in Prescott, Arizona, (named for Dr. S. Harry Robertson), and is affiliated with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Attendees at that time included military aviators, commercial pilots, engineers, academics and flight surgeons. Most attendees were U.S. and Canadian government employees, such as those from the FAA, NTSB and their Canadian counterparts. Maybe I was a little naive at the time, but I remember being puzzled by the lack of people representing aircraft manufacturers.
The course was one of the most enjoyable and fact-filled aviation courses I ever attended, and it was only two weeks long. It began with a physics refresher to enable investigators to figure crash forces and to help them decide on survivability. It ended with a long discussion and practical exercise on crashes that should have been survivable but were not because of post-crash fires.
In between, much valuable information was disseminated on how to protect yourself, whether you are a crew member or passenger. How many passengers think of the necessity of wearing clothing made from natural fabrics rather than synthetic ones, wearing substantial walking shoes that stay on your feet the whole flight, not drinking alcohol before or during a flight, having a ballpoint pen with a metal ink barrel instead of plastic and occupying the safest seats?
The medical block of instruction on autopsies was very interesting, not only in helping to determine what is survivable and what is not, but in helping to determine terrorist causes of in-flight explosions — finding a part of an alarm clock used as a bomb timer embedded in a corpse, for example.
In the many years since then, I have wondered why things have not improved. One example, to the best of my knowledge, is that the interiors of commercial aircraft still consist of materials that release toxic and poisonous gases when burned, so that people caught in a post-crash fire very often die even before being burned.
The U.S. Army has seen much benefit from crash-resistant fuel systems in fewer lives lost and reduced pain and suffering, not to mention saving taxpayer dollars in the reduced amount of medical care needed for burn victims.
I can’t remember the data related to aircraft weight gain and the additional costs for all the crash-resistant parts of the fuel system. But, in general, I remember that it seemed well worth the costs. For example, I do not think the costs for jellied fuel and the subsystem to make it useable in the engines were very great.
Admittedly, I have not been following this subject closely in recent years, but I believe that not much has been done in certain segments of the aircraft manufacturing industry for what appears to me to be big returns on the investment required.
This is my two cents worth regarding the need for something across the board in all categories of aviation that has dragged on too long.
Colonel, U.S. Army (retired) Commercial, Fixed- and Rotary-Wing, Fixed-Wing Single- and Multi-Engine Instrument-Rated, Fixed- and Rotary-Wing Master Army Aviator Dayton, Nevada Question of the Month: Safety excellence expert Shawn Galloway told last month’s CHC Safety & Quality Summit that he has “never seen a company punished into excellence.” Have you? Let us know, and look for responses in a future issue.