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Lithium batteries in aircraft holds worry pilots as international restrictions grow

Pilots’ concerns about the potential fire hazard caused by lithium batteries have been spelled out by the President of the Hong Kong Airline Pilots Association, Dave Newbery. The Hoi Ha resident said crew would prefer devices containing lithium batteries and spare batteries were in the cabin rather than the hold. “If they cook off in the cabin they can be dealt with”.

Lithium batteries in laptops, i-pads and mobile phones have become ubiquitous because pound for pound they are the most energetic rechargeable batteries. But two or three in a million might overheat, smoulder, smoke, then catch fire.

Dave, who is an airline check and training captain, said if this happens in the passenger cabin, the crew know what to do. One of them will come running with flame-proof gloves and a bucket of water. This will be thrown over the “cooking off” device to cool it. The crew member will then stuff the device in a flame-proof sock, seal it and lock it in a toilet.

Two cargo aircraft have crashed, one in Dubai and one in South Korea, and all crew have been killed because of lithium battery fires – these aircraft were carrying bulk shipments of lithium batteries. No passenger aircraft has been lost to date for that reason although here have been instances of individual lithium batteries overheating on laptops and credit card readers in aircraft cabins which have been successfully dealt with. Some progress has been made by international regulation. There is an outright ban worldwide on lithium batteries being carried in bulk on passenger aircraft.


Debris floating in the sea after Korean cargo plane crash reportedly caused by lithium batteries fire in hold

Recently the U.S. and the U.K. restricted passengers from some Arab countries from carrying personal electronic devices larger than mobiles because of a terrorist threat they will not reveal. The laptops, i-pads and other devices carried by these passengers must go in the aircraft’s hold. Pilots are concerned that these regulations will be extended.

“Sticking more and more batteries in the hold is not a good way forward,” Dave said. “The terrorist threat is being addressed but not the worsening risk of fire in aircraft holds.” Fire suppression systems in holds should contain a fire with a series of extinguishing and suppressant measures over some hours. But a “cooking off” lithium battery makes its own oxygen and can keep reigniting. Dave said pilots worry that one day the wrong set of circumstances and the wrong combination of cargo could lead to an uncontrollable fire in the hold.


On other matters, the HKALPA president said the third runway for Chek Lap Kok will not be able to operate at anywhere near capacity unless there are major air traffic control changes. The Pearl River delta, including Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macao and Zhuhai airports should have one ATC authority, not several. Even now, pilots waste a lot of time and fuel going into CLK and departing because of ATC limitations.  For example, an aircraft taking off from CLK for a mainland airport cannot turn directly north. It has to turn south and go into a climbing turn that may be more than 100 miles out of the way until it gets to 15,700ft where it will come under mainland ATC control. With a third runway, greater aircraft congestion will mean CLK cannot operate at full capacity unless ATC limitations are eased by regional agreement or one ATC authority for the delta is formed. There is no sign of this happening for political reasons, Dave said.

One item of good news, he thinks, is the Government decision to make aircraft accident investigation independent of CAD. “This is because CAD can find they are investigating themselves.”  This move to independence of accident investigation should happen in all transport sectors, Dave said, citing the marine disaster where ferries collided. The Marine Department investigated itself and it wasn’t until after the inquiry that the truth started to come out.

Straight approaches down an instrument landing system to the runway will soon be a thing of the past. Today’s cockpit technology means more complex approaches (and departures) can be designed to save time and fuel and to restrict noise footprints.  ATC will monitor all aircraft ensuring separation for safety but aircraft will be able to make complex, curved approaches — all by auto-pilot utilising the aircraft’s inbuilt navigation equipment. It is only at three or four miles out that the autopilot will be turned off and the pilot will hand fly to touch-down. Later too that will be gone and aircraft will auto-land, providing the aircraft, airport and pilots are all certified.  “We are starting to practice these types of approaches now,” the check and training captain said.


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