When it comes to fire safety aboard commercial aircraft, Constantine (Gus) Sarkos is the nation’s expert.
As head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Fire Safety Branch, Sarkos and his team have played a pivotal role improving cabin and cargo safety in ways that have decreased the risk of injuries to airline passengers and saved lives.
“Gus Sarkos does the science that becomes the fire-safety standards adopted by the whole world,” said Dennis Filler, director of the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center.
His painstaking work testing materials and measuring the effectiveness of fire-detection and suppression systems has prompted more than a dozen significant changes to U.S. and foreign aircraft during the past three decades. These changes were designed to stop fires and curtail the spread of blazes occurring in-flight or during crash landings, increasing the chances of passenger survival
Most recently, Sarkos and his team have been examining and reporting on fire threats posed by lighter and potentially flammable materials now being used in airplanes, and by the combustibility of large quantities of lithium batteries carried in cargo holds.
As a result of his team’s work, the Department of Transportation (DOT) no longer allows non-rechargeable metal lithium batteries in the cargo holds of passenger jets. In addition, a number of U.S. airlines this year unilaterally announced they will no longer accept rechargeable ion lithium batteries because of tests done by Sarkos and his team showing that a buildup of gases inside bulk containers can lead to explosions and violent fires.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and DOT currently are considering proposals to ban bulk shipments of these rechargeable batteries or to require safer packaging rules for air transport.
Katherine Rooney, chief of ICAO’s cargo safety section, said the work by Sarkos’ group on the batteries and many other issues has been “absolutely invaluable.” She added that passengers are “in a safer situation thanks to the research they have provided.”
During his long tenure, Sarkos has participated in and overseen the development of such post-crash aircraft fire-safety improvements as new fire-blocking seat cushions, heat-resistant evacuation slides, burn-through resistant fuselage insulation and interior panels that release less heat and smoke.
Research products to prevent in-flight fire accidents include new Halon hand-held fire extinguishers, improved cargo compartment fire-detection and suppression systems, burn-through resistant cargo liners, fire-resistant thermal acoustic insulation and new fuel tank explosion-protection systems.
Sarkos and his staff use the most extensive civil aircraft fire test facilities in the world to replicate the full range of accident and environmental conditions that occur during in-flight and post-crash fires. The scope of testing varies from setting fires and examining the impact on actual airplane fuselages to examining milligram samples of advanced polymers.
The FAA’s goal, Sarkos said, is to minimize the likelihood of an aircraft fire in-flight or improve survivability during a post-crash fire. If a fire occurs in-flight, the objective is to reliably detect, extinguish or suppress it until the aircraft can be landed safely. In the case of a post-crash fire, Sarkos said, the goal is to have materials that burn and spread fire more slowly, and release less heat, so passengers have more time to escape.
Filler said the work of Sarkos and his team came into play in 2013 when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed and caught fire while landing in San Francisco. Three people died of injuries unrelated to the fire, while 304 survived the crash. He said the fire was slow to develop in large part because of the fire-resistant material in the aircraft and, as a result, people had time to evacuate.
Filler also cited a 2008 accident in which a Continental 737 veered off the runway in Denver, skidded into a ravine, lost its landing gear and left engine, and caught fire. All 110 passengers and five crew members had time to evacuate. In 2005, an Air France A340 landed in Toronto during a severe thunderstorm, skidded off the runway and erupted into flames. While the fire eventually gutted the aircraft, all 297 passengers and 12 crew members survived.
“These are examples of three aircraft that caught fire and 728 people survived largely because of the work that Gus and his team have been able to promote throughout the industry,” said Filler. “His efforts have provided added time for passengers to evacuate. In the old days, materials would have burned faster or caused passengers to inhale toxic fumes, and they would have died in the aircraft.”
Sarkos said his work is challenging, but a source of pride because it has resulted in increased safety.
“The worst thing I ever had to do was meet with relatives of accident victims,” said Sarkos. “I am glad that in recent years that conditions have improved because of the work we have done and continue to do.”