Li Batteries can generate a 1,100° fire = HAZARD; more MUST be done, says NTSB Member Sumwalt!

Lithium Ion Batteries in Aviation
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Lithium Ion Batteries in Aviation

More Needs to be Done Now

Lithium Ion Batteries in AviationNTSB Member Sumwalt knows aviation safety; he has a Master of Aeronautical Science Degree (with distinction) concentrating on aviation/aerospace safety systems and human factors aviation systems; he has flown for 32 years (24 years with Piedmont Airlines and US Airways). Accumulating over 14,000 flight hours; his job assignments have included special assignment to the flight safety department and a member of a Flight Operational Quality Assurance monitoring team; he has managed the corporate aviation department; Sumwalt chaired the ALPA’s Human Factors and Training Group and co-founded the association’s critical incident response program. He also spent eight years as a consultant to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System and has written extensively on aviation safety matters.

When he speaks of what he knows, aviation professionals should listen. Add to his background that he is a Member of the Board, his expertise is exceptional.

From the NTSB’s Safety Compass blog, he has authored the provocatively entitled FAHRENHEIT 1,100: LITHIUM BATTERIES IN AVIATION, a carefully written 700+ word essay. The message of this post is well-summarized in his opening paragraph:

There is no place for a fire on an airplane. And if there is a fire, it should not overwhelm fire-suppression equipment.

The Member is a realist and immediately recognizes that the Li Battery is an absolute requirement for the average citizen and that it is not going away.

Lithium Ion Batteries in Aviation

He defines the nature of its hazard:

The same high-energy density that makes lithium batteries such a great way to store electricity can also introduce a fire hazard. A fault in the battery, such as a flaw in the manufacturing process, can cause a fire. Even if a fire starts elsewhere, a lithium battery makes for formidable fuel. When a fire spreads from cell to cell within a lithium-ion battery, it can burn at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

To build the foundation of his argument, he recites the NTSB’s investigations of Li Battery accidents and mentions that international carriers prohibit the carriage of these in bulk.

Member Sumwalt then lays out the problem, although one has to read between the lines to comprehend the sternness of his statement. The text follows:

This year, we recommended that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) take action in response to the 2011 crash. We asked PHMSA to take the following steps:

• require that lithium batteries carried as cargo be segregated from flammable liquids, and

establish maximum loading density requirements for lithium batteries and for flammable liquids to allow such a fire to be effectively managed by onboard fire suppression capabilities.

PHMSA has suggested other actions that could also meet our intent. Whatever solution PHMSA develops, U.S. aviation cannot ignore this potential hazard.

Lithium Ion Batteries in Aviation

That may be a polite way of saying that PHMSA has not done what the NTSB urged the Administration to do and the potential hazard still exists in his expert opinion.

The Member and his colleagues occupy a difficult position. They investigate transportation accidents, find probable causes and make recommendations. They are not saddled with the different and equally difficult job of regulating. They do not have to spend the time to construct rules which are reasonable and enforceable as well as meeting the OMB’s dreaded Cost/Benefit test (OMB Circular A-94).

Perhaps, the Member’s non-critical language reflects his sensitivity to PHMSA’s different assignment, but clearly his sub silentio message is that something more needs to be done now.

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