To an aircraft — and whatever is inside of it — fire is a fast-acting cancer. Regardless of the size of the aircraft, the number of pilots on the flight deck or whether the aircraft is equipped with multiple, redundant backup systems or not, fire will quickly make an aircraft incapable of sustaining life.
Case 1, The Stacked Deck:
The first sign that there anything was wrong at all was noted in the cockpit as an “electrical problem.” Ten seconds later, shouts of “Fire!” could be heard from the cabin. About half a minute after that, a crewmember expressed the need for oxygen. Thirty seconds later, the final recorded voice made a request for the nearest airport, but there was no way the aircraft could have made it. The flight had been in the air for ten minutes and the crew never stood a chance, 110 people perished.
In the very extreme case of ValuJet flight 592, which impacted the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996, the time elapsed between the moment a problem was verbally recognized and the last spoken word recorded is a chilling one minute and twenty-one seconds.
Case 2, By The Book:
The first call of “Pan Pan Pan” included the explanation, “smoke in the cockpit.” Within five minutes, the aircraft, which had been cruising at more than 30,000ft, was cleared to 3,000ft in preparation for an emergency landing. The airport was less than thirty miles away when the crew’s attention was drawn to their fuel situation by a controller (who only intended to better arrange emergency services). The crew, now focused on their fuel status, elected to stop their descent and turned away from salvation to dump fuel. The aircraft moved away from the airport and, as the crew struggled to find an appropriate check-list in the smoke-filled cockpit, they, or the aircraft, were overcome by fire. Two hundred and twenty-nine people were lost.
Swissair Flight 111 declared an emergency more than ten minutes after noting smoke in the cockpit. One minute after the emergency call, the last recorded voice from the cockpit is an unintelligible sound. The jet fell into the sea near Halifax, Canada, on September 2, 1998.
Case 3, The Lucky Ones:
The co-pilot first smelled smoke about eight minutes after departure. The captain immediately declared an emergency and initiated a return to the airport. At that time, the aircraft was close to 7,000ft and 15 miles south of its departure point. In spite of their close proximity to the airport, as the cockpit filled with dense smoke, the flightdeck crew discussed the possibility of an off-airport landing. Approximately eight minutes later, the aircraft was on the ground – at the departure airport – and all 62 occupants were safe.
This AirTran Airways flight out of Greensboro, NC flight occurred in early August 2000, (earlier this month). ValuJet merged with AirTran in 1997 and adopted the AirTran name. Perhaps the lessons of history were not lost on the AirTran crew — but maybe they were just lucky.