Thursday, June 04, 2015

Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County, New Jersey: Man starts fires to save lives on planes

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Gus Sarkos nonchalantly held his hand just inches from aircraft insulation that was being scorched by an industrial-size blowtorch spitting out flames as hot as 2,000 degrees.

Despite the extreme heat, the cloth-like ceramic material provided a fire-proof barrier that prevented flames from burning through on the side where Sarkos stood.

If this had been a real aircraft crash and fire, the thermal acoustic insulation would have given passengers precious minutes to escape the burning wreckage — undoubtedly saving many lives.

Required in new aircraft construction since 2009, the fire-resistant insulation is among a series of safety innovations developed by Sarkos and other researchers at the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center.

In recognition of his career achievements, the 74-year-old Sarkos has been nominated for a major national award called the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal. The winners will be announced in October for what is considered the Oscars of government awards.

The medal would be a capstone to Sarkos’ 46-year career — the Linwood resident is considering retirement in 2016 — but he prefers to give credit to the team of engineers, chemists, technicians and computer scientists he oversees in his role as director of the FAA’s Fire Safety Branch.

“Not ‘I.’ It’s ‘we,’’’ he said. “I see this award nomination as recognition of the entire Fire Safety Branch.”

However, Sarkos paused for a moment of reflection that underscored how he personally has reshaped the aviation industry worldwide to improve safety and save countless lives.

“It’s the most rewarding thing about this job,” he said. “I’ll be able to tell my granddaughter when we get on an airplane that her grandpop had something to do with it.”

The goal, Sarkos explained, is to minimize the likelihood of an in-flight fire or improve the chances of survival during a post-crash fire. Three prominent examples are commercial airline accidents in 2005, 2008 and 2013 that resulted in 718 survivors and no fire fatalities.

In the 2013 accident, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed and caught fire while landing in San Francisco. Although three people died of injuries unrelated to the fire, 304 survived the crash, in large part because of the burn-resistant materials in the jetliner, Sarkos said.

During a test at an FAA Tech Center lab, Sarkos showed the dramatic difference between the old insulation used in the fuselage of commercial aircraft and the fire-resistant material he and his team developed. The unprotected insulation burned through in a mere 9 seconds when exposed to a blowtorch, while the new material withstood the flames for at least 4 minutes.

“Nine seconds to 4 minutes. That’s more than enough time for people to escape from most unforeseen circumstances,” Sarkos said of aircraft passengers fleeing a post-crash fire.

Sarkos, a mechanical engineer, has also overseen the development of such safety innovations as fire-blocking seat cushions, heat-resistant evacuation slides and interior panels that release less smoke and heat.

He has also helped develop new Halon handheld fire extinguishers, burn-resistant cargo liners and cargo compartment fire-detection and suppression systems. Another achievement is a fuel-tank safety system to prevent tragedies such as the 1996 midair explosion of TWA Flight 800, which killed all 230 people aboard.

“Gus Sarkos does the science that becomes the fire-safety standards adopted by the whole world,” said Dennis Filler, director of the FAA Tech Center.

Sarkos and his team oversee what are considered the most extensive aviation fire-safety research facilities in the world. Altogether, there are seven fire-safety labs and buildings at the FAA Tech Center, the agency’s national scientific site 10 miles west of Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township.

For some experiments, researchers use old jetliners to examine how fire can spread through cargo bays or passenger compartments. A former FedEx 727 jet is now the testbed for lithium batteries, which can pose a fire danger if carried in a plane’s cargo hold in bulk quantities.

Research conducted by Sarkos and his team has shown just how volatile lithium batteries can become if they are damaged and ignite, reaching a potentially catastrophic stage known as “thermal runaway.”

Sarkos noted that lithium batteries — used in cellphones and other popular electronic devices — were the cause of two fires that doomed two cargo planes, killing their crews.

As the result of research done by Sarkos and his team, the U.S. Department of Transportation no longer allows nonrechargeable metal lithium batteries in the cargo holds of passenger jets. A number of U.S. carriers unilaterally stopped carrying those types of lithium batteries. In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the USDOT are considering proposals to ban bulk shipments of the batteries or to require safer packaging to prevent aircraft fires.

Story and video:

Gus Sarkos approaches a better grade flame resistant sample of airplane insulation as it's tested inside a building at the FAA Center. Wednesday June 3 2015.   FAA fire-safety expert Gus Sarkos (of Linwood) has been developing aviation fire-safety innovations for about 40 years and is the recent recipient of a national award.