After 10 years in development, the Airbus A380 super jumbo jet has arrived, and airport fire departments will have to determine if they are up to the task of protecting this enormous aircraft.
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2008
By Joseph A. Wright, Sr.
Airport Fire Services have a new aircraft to protect, and she’s redefining big.
The Airbus A380 has been known by many names over the last 10 years, and most recently has been dubbed the “super jumbo jet.” It is a class of commercial airliner that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aptly refer to as very large transport aircraft (VLTA).
Built by Airbus S.A.S., a subsidiary of EADS, a French, English, and European aircraft consortium, the aircraft was known as the Airbus A3XX during much of its development. We now know it as Airbus Model A380, which made its maiden voyage from Toulouse, France, on April 27, 2005, and its first commercial flight from Singapore to Sydney, Australia, on October 25, 2007.
The super carrier — a bigger ride for more passengers
Now that the A380 is here, how does it stack up against other significant large aircraft? Although it is taller and wider than any Boeing Model 747 aircraft built to date, it really isn’t the world’s widest or longest aircraft. That distinction belongs to the Russian cargo plane, the Antonov AN-225. Then what is so unique about the A380, and why is the aviation world so caught up in the A380 buzz?
It’s very simple: The A380 can carry more passengers than any other passenger plane currently in existence and on the longest routes ever conceived by the airlines. The A380 actually has a slightly shorter fuselage than the Airbus A340-600, which is Airbus’ next largest passenger aircraft. The key to developing the Airbus A380 was to build it in the same footprint as the current Boeing 747, so as to prevent major changes to the infrastructures of airports and terminals that would host the aircraft. At some airports, there are operational limitations to taxiways and runways because of wing overlap due to the A380’s 262-foot (79.8-meter) wingspan.
In the standard, three-class configuration, the aircraft can seat 525 passengers. In an all-economy-class configuration, it can carry 853 passengers, and future stretch versions of the aircraft could carry as many as 1,000 passengers. These passengers are seated on two twin-isle decks. The upper deck extends along the entire length of the fuselage, which gives the cabin 50 percent more floor space than the next-largest airliner, the Boeing 747-400. And A380’s four large engines can propel the aircraft for more than 14 hours or half-way around the world.
For an idea of just how big the fuselage of this aircraft is, the A380 will weigh approximately 562 tons (509.8 metric tons), equal to approximately 1,651 Kitty Hawks, the first aircraft flown successfully by the Wright brothers. The length of Orville Wright’s first fi ve-minute flight on December 17, 1903, was shorter than the A380’s wingspan of 261 feet, 10 inches (79.8 meters). And the volume of the A380 is 1,572 meters, large enough to hold approximately 4.5 million tennis balls.
There are two versions of the A380, passenger and cargo freighter. The A380-800F, the freighter model, has a listed payload capacity second only to that of the Antonov AN-225 and a design range of 8,200 nautical miles (15,200 kilometers), sufficient to fly from New York to Hong Kong at a cruising speed of Mach 0.85, or about 560 miles (900 kilometers) per hour at cruise altitude.
The A380 is constructed of aluminum, some graphite composite material, and a unique, new GLAss-REinforced composite material called GLARE. GLARE is simply a thin aluminum sheet reinforced with layers of fiberglass thread and an epoxy binder to hold it together. The A380 is the first aircraft to use GLARE, which is fireresistant, strong, and lightweight.
Adjusting emergency response standards
As new aircraft with additional passenger and cargo capacities are developed and built, new firefighting technologies are needed as well. Working with FAA and ICAO officials, the NFPA Aviation Technical Committee played a key role in developing new standards and new requirements for existing standards to provide emergency response capability at airports worldwide for this new NFPA Category 10 aircraft.
For example, NFPA 414, Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting Vehicles, now has a new Chapter 5 that details minimum considerations for an interior access vehicle. Such specialized vehicles are needed to meet the challenge of getting into the A380 from the ground.
The principal objective of any rescue and firefighting service is to save lives. On the A380, this means entry into the upper levelof the aircraft where the lower door sill height is 26 feet, 6 inches (7.2 meters) off the ground. Previous procedures would have firefighter attack teams use handheld ladders to climb up to these levels, a difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming approach that has not proven effective. Specialized equipment will give firefighters access to the upper levelof the A380, as well as existing Boeing 747s, and special vehicles for servicing interior hand line attacks will have to be moved into place to provide a safe mode of entry to the second level.
A new generation of Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) vehicles that meet the NFPA 414 requirements uses a fiberglass-reinforced composite body material, resulting in a vehicle 15 percent lighter than ordinary ARFF vehicles with greater acceleration and high response speeds. Other vehicles may be fitted with elevated booms with piercing nozzles and high-flow turrets that can inject cooling water spray into the interior to protect trapped occupants. NFPA 414 has been updated to reflect many of the changes in ARFF vehicle design.
The use of new technology should be integrated into the all new ARFF services, strategies, and tactics, including training. The most important factors bearing on an effective rescue in a survivable aircraft accident are the training firefighters receive, the effectiveness of their equipment, and the speed with which they and equipment designated for rescue and firefighting purposes can be put to use. NFPA’s Aviation Technical Committee rewrote NFPA 403, Aircraft Rescue and Fire-Fighting Services at Airports, to reflect the size of the Airbus A380 aircraft and the number of passengers it can carry and recalculated fire protection needs for firefighting equipment, manpower, and fire extinguishing agents.
Some airports, such as Heathrow Airport in England, have taken the lead in building state-of-the-art training facilities to emulate the size and second-level occupancy of these large aircraft, since an accident involving one of these planes might well be of the highest magnitude, testing the tactics and strategies of any airport emergency plan. Every airport firefighting service in the world should be equipped, trained, and prepared to handle the largest aircraft anticipated to land at the airport, and their training and equipment must meet international standards. Among these standards is NFPA 405, Recurring Proficiency of Airport Fire Fighters, which contains recommendations for firefighting training evolutions.
Many airports use also NFPA 424, Guide for Airport/Community Emergency Planning, to help them develop mutual-aid plans and community-wide emergency plans for the airport. The procedures that airport firefighters must follow when responding to an aircraft incident are covered in NFPA 402, Guide for Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Operations, and NFPA 403, Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Services at Airports.
Super rescue plans
A particular concern of the plane’s designers and the firefighting community was how to get such a large number of passengers and crew off the A380 during an emergency.
In March 2006, a full-scale evacuation demonstration was conducted in Hamburg, Germany, under U.S. and European regulatory bodies. The goal was to evacuate all the passengers from the plane in total darkness in less than 90 seconds, with half of the 18 emergency slide doors blocked per the certification requirements.
All 853 passengers and a crew of 20 successfully evacuated the aircraft in 78 seconds. During a real emergency, however, it is possible that the flow of escaping passengers may not go smoothly or may take much longer than the required 90-second evacuation time, particularly if a post-crash fire develops. The layout of the A380 is complex, and there are many areas in which disoriented passengers could become trapped if the aircraft fills with smoke. On some A380s, for example, there may be sleeping quarters on the lower deck for business and first class travelers. Such compartments could be damaged, and firefighters might have to perform a detailed confined space search and rescue to extricate the passengers. Therefore, NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents, should be included in aircraft rescue and firefighting training for confined space rescue.
The large number of passengers on an A380 will also change how firefighters respond to an incident. There are nine emergency exits equipped with slides that extend approximately 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 meters) from each side of the Airbus A380, and hundreds of passengers will slide down them from both levels of the aircraft simultaneously. Firefighters will find it more difficult to gain early entry into the cabin, and passengers on slides may interfere with the positioning of necessary egress equipment, such as rolling stairways.
Early suppression is possible if the proper equipment and manpower are available. Firefighters would need a specialized, second-level access vehicle that can reach 25 feet (7.5 meters) from the ground for egress into all levels of the aircraft, a quick-response vehicle fi tted with an elevated boom with a piercing nozzle that could provide very early fire suppression into the burning interior, and high-pressure fans to provide quick ventilation of any toxic smoke build-up in the cabin.
Also needed are dedicated quick-attack firefighters with no duties other than rapid interior egress, entry, and fire attack should the accident require such action. The dedicated attack crews must have constant physical training, as well as actual multilevel-aircraft training, to be fit and ready for interior rescue and firefighting. Training for this specific task should be addressed in the airport’s emergency response plan.
As new aircraft with additional passenger and cargo capacities are developed and built, new firefighting technologies equal to the challenges will emerge, as well. Working in concert, the FAA, the ICAO, and NFPA will continue to support the creation of standards and practices that ensure the necessary and most current aircraft fire and rescue procedures are in place for the safety of both responders and the flying public.
Joseph A. Wright, Sr. is the founder of ARFF Technical Services, Inc. A retired ARFF research program manager from the Federal Aviation Administration, he is a member of NFPA’s Aviation Technical Committee.