British Airways Boeing 777 crash – live and learn

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As happens once in a while, the investigators of the crash of BA038 at Heathrow back in January are rather coming to the conclusion that, despite the millions of comparable flights the industry has made, we don’t know as much about a basic element of long-haul flight as we thought we did. The element in question being the potential for ice to form in fuel in-flight. In as close to a nutshell as I can get, here’s what they’re now saying:

Every aspect of the flight was conducted in accordance with the book. The Chinese fuel was fine, the aircraft was operated properly and routinely, it was flown comfortably above the the minimum approved fuel temperature, and all the mechanical and electrical systems behaved exactly as advertised.

However, the fact remains that in the closing minutes of the flight fuel was not delivered to the engines as required and thrust was lost, leading to the very nicely handled controlled crash just inside the Heathrow perimeter.

The investigators at the UK AAIB have concluded that ice in the fuel is the only real candidate, and that it caused the blockage by one of two mechanisms: either it slowly accreted to the extent that it choked off the flow through a line, or it accreted and finally broke off before becoming lodged in another part of the fuel system.

So what to do? The AAIB looks at it this way: since we can’t keep water out of fuel we immediately need a way to prevent it freezing. It suggests the introduction into commercial air transport of something called FSII – Fuel System Icing Inhibitor – which is a fuel additive used by the military and bizjets but not in general by airlines.

(It seems to me the other solution is to fly lower when required to keep the fuel less cold – which will cost of course.)

And the AAIB also says that there’s no reason to think the same sort of thing couldn’t happen on other aircraft/engine combinations – so it wants the regulators to consider the implications of that for the global fleet. In other words, it’s not just Trent/777 operators that are going to take the hit.

And finally, they point out that it seems the current rules don’t cover the circumstances that appear to have risen on BA038. So there is a nasty kicker about “reviewing the current certification requirements” to handle the “potential build up and sudden release of ice in the fuel feed system”. That is going to keep lots of people in gainful employment for quite a while.

Could it happen again? Well, the AAIB points out that this is the only such incident in 6.5 million hours and 1.4 million Trent-777 flights.

But at the back of everyone’s minds is the fact that this was a loaded widebody that scraped over the airport fence on the edge of one of the most heavily populated cities in the world. And if it was dislodged ice, then it’s not coincidental that that was when the problem emerged.

Expect regulatory action in short order.

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