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FAA Oversight of Procedures and Technologies to Prevent and Mitigate the Effects of Dense, Continuous Smoke in the Cockpit

GAO-13-551R: Published: Jun 4, 2013. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 2013.

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Gerald L. Dillingham
(202) 512-2834
dillinghamg@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

FAA uses a variety of approaches, including certifying airplane design and inspecting air carriers, to oversee procedures and technologies that prevent or mitigate the effects of dense, continuous smoke in the cockpit. In the course of our review, we identified five such procedures and technologies that FAA oversees. They are:

(1) Evacuation of dense smoke from the cockpit—FAA’s certification standards for aircraft design include that smoke evacuation must be readily accomplished. Additionally, FAA’s guidelines state that airplane manufacturers may demonstrate compliance with this requirement by evacuating dense smoke from the cockpit within 3 minutes. The guidelines also recommend, but do not require, that manufacturers demonstrate the capability to evacuate continuously generated smoke from the cockpit. However, according to FAA, no manufacturer has yet chosen to demonstrate this capability.

(2) Protective breathing equipment for the flightcrew—FAA requires air carriers to provide protective breathing equipment that protects the flightcrew from the effects of smoke. The equipment must supply breathing gas for at least 15 minutes, must allow the pilots to use communication equipment, and must be readily accessible by the pilot. FAA inspections of aircraft include checks of this equipment.

(3) Pilot training on emergency procedures—FAA requires air carriers’ pilot training programs to cover principles of emergency operations and emergency communications procedures. Specific to in-flight smoke and fire situations, FAA recommends that air carriers’ training programs ensure that flight crewmembers understand the potential effects of the airplane’s ventilation systems on hidden fires and that pilots practice planning for an immediate descent and landing at the nearest suitable airport. FAA approves air carriers’ training program curricula and conducts periodic inspections.

(4) Checklist to respond to smoke in the cockpit—FAA requires that an FAA-approved checklist that includes emergency procedures be provided by air carriers and used by their flight crewmembers. FAA conducts periodic inspections related to these requirements. In addition, FAA participated in an industry-led effort to develop a smoke, fire, and fumes checklist template and recommendations related to its use. FAA recommends, but does not require, that an air carrier’s relevant parties (e.g., directors of safety and pilots) collaborate to consider applying these documents in their related checklists.

(5) Emergency Vision Assurance System (EVAS)—EVAS consists of an inflatable transparent unit that provides the pilot with a “window” to view their instruments and out the windshield when there is dense, continuous smoke in the cockpit. FAA has approved the installation of the device for several models of commercial airplanes. FAA evaluated EVAS and concluded that EVAS does not provide a significant safety benefit and the potential benefits of EVAS do not warrant the costs that would be incurred by industry if FAA were to mandate installation because (1) dense, continuous smoke in the cockpit is a very rare event and (2) accidents in which dense, continuous smoke has occurred indicate that according to FAA, such scenarios “are likely to be catastrophic for reasons other than flightcrew visibility (e.g., loss of airplane controllability, structural failure).” Further, dense, continuous smoke in the cockpit has only once been identified by NTSB as a cause of a commercial aviation accident.

The stakeholders we interviewed generally agreed that FAA’s oversight of protective breathing equipment, pilot training, and cockpit checklists was effective. With regard to FAA’s oversight of the evacuation of dense smoke from the cockpit and EVAS, stakeholders had mixed views.

Why GAO Did This Study

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study on the effectiveness of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of the use of new technologies to prevent or mitigate the effects of dense, continuous smoke in the cockpit of commercial aircraft. FAA oversees these procedures and technologies as part of its mission to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system. In the initial phase of our research, we determined that there was only one technology that was developed to specifically target dense, continuous smoke in the cockpit and that this type of event occurred so infrequently that it was not practical for us to evaluate the effectiveness of FAA’s oversight. Consistent with the mandate, we gathered stakeholders’ views regarding the effectiveness of FAA’s oversight of these procedures and the technologies related to preventing or mitigating the effects of dense, continuous smoke in the cockpit

For more information, contact Gerald L. Dillingham at (202) 512-2834 or dillinghamg@gao.gov.

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