Did lithium-ion batteries cause the loss of MH370?

Oct. 16, 2015

Clive Irving has a lengthy article in The Daily Beast suggesting why Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 may have crashed. His starting-off point is a report that fire risk is prompting federal officials to back a proposed ban on rechargeable lithium-ion battery shipments as cargo on passenger airlines. NBC News quotes Angela Stubblefield, a Federal Aviation Administration hazardous materials official, as saying, “We believe the risk is immediate and urgent.”

Irving, a senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler specializing in aviation and the author of Wide-Body: The Triumph of the 747, notes that Boeing and Airbus have put forward their own warnings. He writes, “Specifically, the Boeing warning recommended that ‘high density packages of lithium-ion batteries and cells not be transported as cargo on passenger airplanes until such time as safer methods of transport are established and followed.’”

He adds, “No precursor event was cited—publicly. However, as I have previously reported, as part of the investigation into the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Boeing has run computer simulations aimed at re-creating the behavior of the Boeing 777 during the last hours of its course into the southern Indian Ocean.”

One scenario, he explains, is a cargo-hold fire initiated by a shipment of lithium-ion batteries. Irving goes on to describe a 777’s fire-suppression systems as well as information on a shipment of “fresh” single li-ion cells and their location aboard MH370. He writes, “The batteries did not undergo safety checks after assembly, although they were ‘inspected physically’ and the shipment was not designated as ‘dangerous goods’ because the packaging met the current lax international guidelines for the shipment of the batteries by air.”

He asks, how, if a battery-initiated fire crippled MH 370, it could have continued flying for six hours? A fire in the forward cargo hold, he suggests, could have destroyed the power-supply line to communications and navigations systems without affecting flight controls.

He quotes Dr. Victor Ettel, an expert on the science and manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, as saying, “Even if the transponders were located in different parts of the airplane they could have been disabled by a fire in the electronics bay, instead of by a deliberate action by a pilot or a terrorist entering the electronics bay, as has been suggested. It is therefore conceivable that the electronic and navigational systems in the bay could have been disabled [by fire], leaving only the hydraulic systems working.”

Read the complete article with illustrations showing the battery location near the Main Equipment Center, or electronics bay, here.

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