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U.S. safety board can’t rule out laptop batteries as cause of UPS plane fire


December 11, 2007
By By Kimberly Hefling THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dec 5, 2007 - Washington - Evidence indicates laptop batteries caused a spectacular cargo plane fire at Philadelphia International Airport last year, federal safety investigators said Tuesday, but they said it's not certain.

WASHINGTON _–
Evidence indicates laptop batteries caused a spectacular cargo plane
fire at Philadelphia International Airport last year, federal safety
investigators said Tuesday, but they said it's not certain.

Based
on the fire and other evidence, the National Transportation Safety
Board concluded that lithium batteries – used in laptops and cellphones
– are a potential fire hazard for cargo aircraft.

“This has
been kind of a wake-up call,'' said NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker. He
noted that more consumer education may be needed about the proper
handling of lithium batteries.

The three crew members on the UPS
cargo plane jumped to safety on the tarmac and were treated for minor
injuries after the aircraft made an emergency landing around midnight
on Feb. 7, 2006. The airplane and most of the cargo were destroyed by
the fire, which started as the plane approached Philadelphia.

The
blaze was one of several in recent years in which lithium batteries
caught fire on aircraft. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, sometimes
called “secondary'' lithium batteries, and nonrechargeable, or
“primary'' lithium batteries, can present fire hazards because of the
heat they generate when they are damaged or suffer a short circuit.

Twelve
fires involving batteries were reported to the Federal Aviation
Administration before the Philadelphia fire, and 15 others have been
reported since then, NTSB investigator Crystal Thomas told the board.
But the NTSB said too many incidents are exempt from reporting
requirements and better data is needed.

The board said cargo
operators should transport the batteries in well-marked fire resistant
containers that are accessible to the flight crew in case of an onboard
fire.

“Flight crews on cargo only aircraft remain at risk from
in-flight fires involving both primary and secondary lithium
batteries,'' the NTSB said.

The NTSB's recommendations are not
binding, and it does not have the authority to force other government
agencies to follow its decisions.

George Kerchner, executive
director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, said many of
the NTSB's concerns are already being addressed at the international
level. He also said there is also heightened awareness among carriers
and manufacturers about the need to properly package batteries to
prevent fires.

In the past two years, defective laptop batteries
have been fingered as potential fire hazards. Thomas noted that the
Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled millions of laptop
batteries because they could catch fire.

In the Philadelphia
case, investigators said destruction from the blaze made it difficult
to determine a definitive cause, but other hazardous materials were
ruled out. The NTSB also noted that the blaze appeared to have started
in containers that contained laptop batteries.

The crew declared
an emergency on approach into Philadelphia. Fire and rescue crews met
the four-engine jet, a DC-8 that originated in Atlanta, and spent four
hours trying to control the fire.

The NTSB determined that the
airport's rescue and firefighting personnel were unfamiliar with the
aircraft door, and that hurt their ability to get to the fire. The
board also said some emergency personnel who responded were
inadequately trained on the use of a key piece of firefighting
equipment.

On the Net:

National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov

Federal Aviation Administration: http://faa.gov