Sweaty-palmed air travelers by the thousands must have worried many times about the frightening scenario:
A commercial airliner lands at Los Angeles International Airport with a fire in the passenger compartment. To escape, the frantic passengers must get out exits, which firefighters must use to get in to fight the fire. Survival is a matter of seconds.
Passengers are not alone in worrying about on-board fires, blamed for the deaths of more than 380 people in airport incidents in Cincinnati, Saudi Arabia and Malta since 1980. The Los Angeles City Fire Department is also concerned.
And the department recently demonstrated its newest piece of firefighting equipment designed to pierce an aircraft's metal skin in seconds and flood the interior with a fire-suppressing, inert gas. The object is to gain precious seconds.
While airliners rolled past and the media watched one day last week, Firefighter Benny Collins of Fire Station 80 at LAX quickly drilled through a piece of fuselage metal attached to thick plywood and poured the firefighting agent Halon 1301 into a sealed room with volunteers inside.
When someone in the room lit a match, it flared and went out.
Assistant Fire Chief Davis R. Parsons, who spent two years developing the system, cautioned that the opportunity for its use is narrow and requires "very precise and demanding" conditions. He said it supplements conventional aircraft firefighting techniques.
Nevertheless, Parsons called the state-of-the-art drill--a Skin Penetrator/Agent Applicator Tool--the "greatest single development" for battling aircraft fires since the discovery of firefighting foam.
The $3,500, high-tech device was developed for the military, which uses it in other ways. Parsons believes that LAX is the only commercial airport in the world with the method developed and demonstrated by the Fire Department.
Penetration in 10 Seconds
The air-powered drill is connected to pressurized tanks by hoses. It has a hollow shaft and holes in its tip. In capable hands, it can penetrate an aircraft's fuselage in less than 10 seconds and fill a DC-10 through two nozzles in about 90 seconds, according to Parsons.
At LAX, tanks holding Halon are mounted on Station 80's two $500,000 aircraft firefighting rigs, large pieces of equipment each capable of holding 4,000 gallons of water and 515 gallons of foam.
Given enough notice and under precise circumstances, Parsons envisages an on-board fire emergency when firefighters roll the big rigs up to an aircraft in 30 seconds, penetrate the fuselage in 10 seconds and pour enough Halon inside in 15 seconds to suppress the flames.
It just might give enough time for passengers to escape on their own, for rescuers to help those who cannot and for firefighters to start battling the fire and avoid a tragedy.
At least that is the hoped-for happy ending to a common nightmare.