Assistant Editor, Informa

January 4, 2024


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Japan plane crash provides fire safety insight on composite materials

On Tuesday 2 January, a Japan Airlines plane collided with a smaller coastguard plane during its landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in Japan. 

All 379 passengers and crew on board the Japan Airlines (JAL) flight managed to evacuate the burning plane before it was engulfed in flames. Five of the six people on board the coastguard plane were confirmed dead, with its Captain being the sole person to escape the collision.

The fire reportedly took firefighters eight hours to completely extinguish.

Experts are now examining how the plane’s materials may have aided the evacuation, which took 18 minutes.

The commercial A350 plane was commissioned in 2021 to JAL from manufacturers, Airbus.

As a newer feature in modern aircrafts, the plane’s fuselage and wings were composed of carbon-fibre composite materials which are less heat resistant than metal.

Dr Sonya Brown, a Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Design at the University of New South Wales’ School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, told the Guardian that previously, passenger jets were mostly made from metal, however aviation engineers have been increasing the proportion of carbon fibre composite materials to reduce weight and increase efficiency of planes.

She added that around half of the A350 is made from carbon fibre reinforced polymers, and described its reaction to heat: “Obviously the materials do impact the fire performance, and while we don’t know the specifics of the resins used in the plane in this incident, they will lose their structural capability, their sense of thickness, at a lower temperature than aluminium.”

“Carbon fibre composites might start to lose some of their stiffness at about 200 degrees, while aluminium will melt at about 700 degrees, but the fire we saw on that fuselage will have had temperatures above 1000 degrees Celsius”, Brown added.

Added heat shield

However the burning of composite materials may have formed an added heat shield for passengers and crew on board providing more time to evacuate, as Emile Greenhalgh, Professor of Composite Materials at Imperial College in London told the Financial Times: “As the material burns, all the flammable material forms a char layer . . .[so] you end up with a barrier against the progression of fire.”

An investigation is currently ongoing to establish why the two planes collided, with reports saying the JAL plane was cleared for landing, however the coastguard plane was not yet cleared for take-off.

In a statement on Tuesday, Airbus said they would provide technical assistance and will dispatch a team of specialists to assist authorities in the investigation.


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