On 19th Aug 1980 Saudi Airlines SV163 turned back soon after takeoff due onboard fire and after landing met with an unfortunate fate and all 301 onboard perished.
36 years later Singapore Airline B777 flight SQ368 to Milan, turned back soon after takeoff and landed back with an engine fire which soon engulfed the wing. Fortunately, all aboard disembarked the aircraft safely.
Both aircrafts turned back and landed safely.
Both crew had issues identifying the appropriate procedure applicable in the scenario they were facing.
Cabin crew of both crew had the authority and training to initiate evacuation in the absence of any command from the flight deck and the situation warranted so.
Both Crew decided not to evacuate but Singapore Airlines managed to save all lives but Saudi Airlines lost all lives.
In the Saudi Captain’s shoes
The origin of the onboard fire could not be determined by the investigation. The Captain formed his mental image of the aircraft and the intensity of the fire based on the inputs he gathered from various sources.
After takeoff the crew were alerted by audio and visual indications of smoke in Cargo bay.
The crew deliberated for 4 min 21 sec before confirming the warning.
The Flight Engineer who went into the cabin to investigate came back and informed the Captain that there was a fire in the cabin.Shortly after that he left again and came back to inform that it as just smoke at the aft.
A decision to turn back was taken and ATC informed of the fire and to inform the fire trucks. They were advised to follow the tail after landing.
The cabin crew informed the Captain that there was smoke in the cabin. The F/E checked the system and informed the Captain that there was no indication of smoke.
The cabin crew asked the Captain twice if they should evacuate. The first time the Captain told them yes but the second time, since the aircraft was close to landing, he told them to sit down.
Next, the F/E asked the Captain that the crew wants to know if they should evacuate? The Captain told the F/E to inform them not to evacuate.
The aircraft landed, rolled till the end of the runway and vacated on to a taxiway. After stopping the Captain asked the tower if they could see any fire? The tower after consulting with the fire trucks told the Captain that there was NO fire.
There was conversation between the tower and the fire trucks about the increase in fire and the tower communicated the same to the Captain. The engines of the aircraft continued to run . The Captain told the tower “Affirmative, we are trying to evacuate”.
Note: There was no common frequency between the Tower, Fire trucks and the Crew.
Reason for not evacuating
Could not be determined by the investigation.
In the SQ Captains shoes
While climbing to the cruising level, the crew notice and unusually low oil quantity in Eng 2.
The crew contacted the company and had a conference call. They were advised to turn back even though there wasn’t any abnormal indication.
There was vibration followed by a slight burning smell.
The ATC queried a number of times if they needed assistance but the crew denied any requirement of assistance.
On touchdown the Airport Rescue and Firefighting Services (ARRF) saw fire from the right engine, informed the tower who further informed the crew. There was no cockpit indication of fire.
The fire commander (FC) asked the tower to inform the crew to switch over to the emergency frequency.
The FC informed the crew that the fire was big and advised disembarkation from the port side. The FC was confident that an evacuation would not be required and the fire would be brought under control.
The Capt. asked the FC twice, if evacuation was required from the port side? The FC told the crew to standby and the were still fighting the fire.
The Capt. repeatedly asked the FC if an evacuation was required and the response was ” negative negative negative we will like to advise disembarkation disembarkation no evacuation no evacuation”
The fire had spread to the right wing. Evacuation was still not ordered.
The Capt. has instructed the crew to prepare for evacuation as soon as the aircraft stopped.
During the initial stages of the fire, several cabin crew members tried to contact the flight crew through the cabin interphone. However, only one call was answered by a flight crew member and he informed the cabin crew that they were aware of the situation and were handling it.
Reason for not evacuating
As the aircraft arrived to land, fuel was still leaking from the engine through various leakage areas.
In the initial communication, the FC advised the PIC “…we are still trying to contain the fire…the fire is pretty big…will like to advise…disembarkation on your port side”. As the commander of the aircraft, the PIC was aware that the decision to evacuate lay with him and that he could order an evacuation even if the FC advised a disembarkation.
Although the PIC was the only person actively communicating with theFC, the rest of the flight crew members were listening to the communication and the decision not to evacuate was reached collectively.
On the one hand, the operator’s flight crew training manual recommends that in a situation that a persistent smoke or a fire which cannot positively be confirmed to be completely extinguished, the safest course of action typically requires the earliest possible descent, landing and evacuation. The manual also recommends that pilots should utilise all available sources of information in making a decision regarding evacuation. The manual also highlights that key factors to be considered include the urgency of the situation (e.g. possibility of significant injury or loss of life if a significant delay occurs). The manual also recommends that, in case of doubt, an evacuation should be considered.
On the other hand, the operator’s flight crew training manual also recognises that fire may be spreading rapidly from spilled fuel or other flammable materials, which may endanger the people who have left the aircraft or are still on the escape slides.
Whereas both aircraft landed safely, both did not evacuate for different reasons. The Capt. of SV 163 did not get accurate and timely information from the crew members and ground based Tower and RFFS.
The SQ 368 Captain had the FC communicating directly and relied on the information passed on by him. The Capt. held back his order to evacuate even though he had all the authority.