Fire safety of aircraft materials

A conventional wide-bodied jet contains some 4000 kg of plastics, with 50 % used for structural applications. Since the 70's, the use of plastics in airplanes indeed grew from 4 to almost 30%, and should reach 50% by 2013!

For ensuring fire safety in an aircraft, materials and components in the cabins and holds have to meet basic fire safety levels in vertical, horizontal, forty five and a sixty degree Bunsen burner tests.

In addition, more demanding fire tests are the "OSU-Chamber" test from the Ohio State University (rate of heat release), the Kerosene Burner tests for seats (cushion fire blocking) and for cargo or baggage compartments (flame penetration resistance).  The smoke emission characteristics of cabin materials are measured in the NBS smoke chamber.

Following the 1998 Swissair flight 111 accident with 229 fatalities caused by a burning insulation between the fuselage and the passenger cabin, the Burnthrough Resistance test was developed to determine the fire performance of thermal/acoustic insulation materials in the lower half of fuselage with the Kerosene Burner and is mandatory since September 2009.

A more recent problem for fire safety in an airplane is the widespread use of high energy lithium batteries and fuel cells. Since 2007, 34 aircraft lithium battery fires occurred in the passenger cabin (9), the baggage compartment (6), and in compartments of cargo flights (19). As 3.3 billion lithium cells have already been transported worldwide in 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration FAA has initiated a program to determine the fire hazards and methods for control of high energy lithium batteries and fuel cells. The applications are: bulk transport as cargo, carriage in passenger baggage, carriage and use in the cabin and aircraft design or equipment.

For lithium batteries, a bulk load configuration for testing has been developed, and fire tests were performed.