UPS Dubai crash: GCAA final report links accident to lithium batteries

Smoke rising from the site of a cargo plane crash in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on September 3, 2010. UPS cargo plane with two crew members on board crashed shortly after takeoff outside Dubai. (AP)

The UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) has issued its final air accident investigation report on the crash of the UPS cargo plane that crashed on September 3, 2010, in the desert outside Dubai.

On that tragic day, at about 7:51pm local time (1551 GMT), United Parcel Service (UPS) Flight 6, a Boeing 747-400F (N571UP), crashed while attempting to land at Dubai International Airport (DXB).

The flight had departed from Dubai approximately 45-minutes earlier as a scheduled cargo flight to Cologne, Germany, but the flight crew declared an emergency and requested an immediate return to Dubai. The airplane impacted inside an Emirati army base near a busy highway intersection, approximately nine miles from Dubai’s international airport. The two flight crew members were fatally injured.

The report published yesterday, says that “the investigation concludes with reasonable certainty that the location of the fire was in an element of the cargo that contained, among other items, lithium batteries.”

The UAE GCAA’s report states that the fire began in the section of the cargo that included “a significant number of lithium type batteries and other combustible materials” and added that “the fire escalated rapidly into a catastrophic uncontained fire.”

The 322-page report into the crash, which killed both pilots, points to the presence of lithium batteries in the cargo as a possible reason for the ignition that then engulfed to other combustible material around. “It is possible that a lithium type battery or batteries, for reasons which cannot be established, went into an energetic failure characterised by thermal runaway and auto ignited starting a chain reaction which spread to the available combustible material,” the report concludes.

Malfunctioning lithium batteries have been more recently linked with the temporary grounding of the entire fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft after a fire in the battery of a parked Japan Airlines’ 787 aircraft was reported, followed by an emergency landing of an All Nippon Airways 787 due to smoke emerging from its lithium battery.

“Lithium batteries have a history of thermal runaway and fire, are unstable when damaged and can short circuit if exposed to overcharging, the application of reverse polarity or exposure to high temperature are all potential failure scenarios which can lead to thermal runaway,” the GCAA’s report maintains.

“Once a battery is in thermal runaway, it cannot be extinguished with the types of extinguishing agent used on board aircraft and the potential for auto ignition of adjacent combustible material exists.”

The report states that investigators found no items other than the lithium batteries capable of causing the fire among the debris. “The cargo identified on scene included clothing, machined parts and subassemblies, flashlights, gun parts, costume jewellery, cases for electronic equipment, USB flash drives, un-populated circuit boards, espresso makers, automotive entertainment and navigation systems, bike frames, pellets for injection moulding, wrist watch components, rubber bracelets, cell phones, MP3 and MP4 players, mannequin heads, wigs, shoes,” the report states.

“No items posing a flammable fuel load or capable of acting as an ignition source were visually identified except for batteries and battery containing devices,” it adds.

The report also maintains that “shippers of some of the lithium battery cargo loaded in Hong Kong did not properly declare these shipments” in addition to not providing test reports as mandated by the UN Recommendations to verify that such these battery designs were in conformance with UN Modal Regulations.

“At some point prior to the fire warning, contents of a cargo pallet, which included lithium batteries, auto-ignited, causing a large and sustained cargo fire which was not detected by the smoke detectors when in the early stages of Pyrolysis,” the investigation concludes.

“The uncontained cargo fire directly affected the independent critical systems necessary for crew survivability. Heat from the fire exposed the supplementary oxygen system to extreme thermal loading, sufficient to generate a failure. This resulted in the oxygen supply disruption leading to the abrupt failure of the Captain’s oxygen supply and the incapacitation of the captain,” the report states.

“The progressive failure of the cargo compartment liner increased the area available for the smoke and fire penetration into the fuselage crown area,” it says. “The rate and volume of the continuous toxic smoke, contiguous with the cockpit and supernumerary habitable area, resulted in inadequate visibility in the cockpit, obscuring the view of the primary flight displays, audio control panels and the view outside the cockpit which prevented all normal cockpit functioning,” it adds.

The UAE GCAA’s investigation report lists the sequence of events that led to the tragic crash of the Boeing 747-44AF aircraft.


“On September 3rd 2010, a Boeing 747-44AF departed Dubai International Airport [DXB] on a scheduled international cargo flight [SCAT-IC] to Cologne [CGN], Germany.

“Twenty two minutes into the flight, at approximately 32,000 feet, the crew advised Bahrain Area East Air Traffic Control [BAE-C] that there was an indication of an on-board fire on the Forward Main Deck and declared an emergency.

“Bahrain Air Traffic Control advised that Doha International Airport [DOH] was ‘at your ten o’clock and one hundred miles, is that close enough?’, the Captain elected to return to DXB, configured the aircraft for the return to Dubai and obtained clearance for the turn back and descent.

“A cargo on the main cargo deck had ignited at some point after departure. Less than three minutes after the first warning to the crew, the fire resulted in severe damage to flight control systems and caused the upper deck and cockpit to fill with continuous smoke.

“The crew then advised Bahrain East Area Control [BAE-C] that the cockpit was ‘full of smoke’ and that they ‘could not see the radios’, at around the same time the crew experienced pitch control anomalies during the turn back and descent to ten thousand feet.

“The smoke did not abate during the emergency impairing the ability of the crew to safely operate the aircraft for the duration of the flight back to DXB.

“On the descent to ten thousand feet, the captain’s supplemental oxygen supply abruptly ceased to function without any audible or visual warning to the crew five minutes and thirty seconds after the first audible warning. This resulted in the Captain leaving his position. The Captain left his seat and did not return to his position for the duration of the flight due to incapacitation from toxic gases.

“The First Officer[F.O], now the Pilot Flying [PF] could not view outside of the cockpit, the primary flight displays, or the audio control panel to retune to the UAE frequencies.

“Due to the consistent and contiguous smoke in the cockpit all communication between the destination [DXB] and the crew was routed through relay aircraft in VHF range of the emergency aircraft and BAE-C.

“BAE-C then relayed the information to the Emirates Area Control Center (EACC) in the UAE via landline, who then contacted Dubai ATC via landline.

“As the aircraft approached the aerodrome in Dubai, it stepped down in altitude, the aircraft approached DXB runway 12 left (RWY 12L), then overflew the northern perimeter of the airport at 4500 ft at around 340 kts . The PF could not view the Primary Flight Displays [PFD] or the view outside the cockpit.

“The Pilot Flying was advised Sharjah International Airport [SHJ] was available at 10 nm. This required a left hand turn, the aircraft overflew DXB heading East, reduced speed, entering a shallow descending right-hand turn to the south of the airport before loss of control in flight and an uncontrolled descent into terrain, nine nautical miles south west of Dubai International Airport.

“There were no survivors.”


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