Aircraft Fires Can Turn Deadly Fast–So Why Didn’t the Crew Of Singapore Airlines SQ368 Order An Evacuation?

New Footage of Singapore Fire Shows Flight Attendants Telling Passengers To Remain Seated While Massive Engine and Wing Fire Rages Outside.

Earlier this week, a Singapore Airlines flight 368 returned to Singapore Changi International Airport with a suspected engine problem and oil leak.  Upon landing, a massive fire broke out that engulfed the entire right wing.  Initial footage that was posted to social media showed that the wing was actually glowing with fire shooting out of the engine as well as the leading and trailing edges of the wing. Surprisingly, the captain made the decision NOT to evacuate even though there was most likely a significant amount of fuel remaining in the wings.

Many on social media and the aviation forums have questioned the decision of the captain to not order an evacuation.  Now, additional cell phone video has emerged showing that the flight attendants were ordering passengers to remain seated and keep their seat belt fastened.  They made the request to go back to their seats all while the cabin was pitch black with no cabin lighting and a massive fire raged outside.

Determining whether to evacuate an airplane is a very serious decision that is typically ordered by the captain in only the most serious of circumstances.  It is a well known fact that there will most likely be injuries anytime an evacuation is ordered.  Bumps, bruises and broken bones are common.  In the case of the Asiana crash at SFO in 2013, a passenger was actually killed by an emergency vehicle that was responding to the accident.

Even though an evacuation can be very dangerous, there are clear cases where the risks of not evacuating the airplane in a timely manner can be even more severe.  An uncontrolled engine, wing or fuselage fire are conditions that call for a ground evacuation.  While we are all grateful that everyone onboard Singapore Airlines flight 368 escaped unharmed, a fire of that magnitude could have easily penetrated the cabin and turned deadly.  All aboard flight SQ368 were extremely lucky.

Many people have questioned the decisions of the crew of SQ368 to not order an evacuation.  We’ll have to wait for the report to learn the real reasons why the crew didn’t order an evacuation. At the very least, their decision was unusual.  There are so many examples in aviation history though that highlight the importance of evacuating an airliner in an expedient manner when fire is present.

China Airlines Flight 120 (Boeing 737-800)

Burned remains of China Airlines 737-800 registration number B-18616. Airliner caught fire and exploded after landing at Naha Airport, Okinawa, Japan on August 20, 2007. None of the passengers or crewmembers were injured, although one ground crew was injured. Photo by: Thomas Mitchell

In 2007, China Airlines flight 120 caught fire while taxiing to the gate after landing.  As soon as the captain was informed of a fire on the aircraft, he ordered an evacuation of his jet.  All 157 people onboard safely evacuated just seconds before a massive explosion and fire engulfed the aircraft.  It was later determined that a bolt on the slat had punctured the right fuel tank.  A split-second decision to order an evacuation saved lives.


British Airtours Flight 28M (Boeing 737-200)

Another case was British Airtours Flight 28M.  In this case, a Boeing 737-200 rejected a takeoff due to an engine fire and fuel leak.  As the aircraft cleared the runway, the fire intensified.  In a matter of seconds after stopping, the intense fire had penetrated the cabin.  An evacuation was ordered.  Taking the time to turn off the active runway before evacuating turned out to be a decision that wasted precious seconds. Even though emergency responders arrived quickly to put out the fire, 53 passenger and two crew lost their lives in the incident.


Air Canada Flight 797 (Douglas DC-9-32)

One final case was Air Canada flight 797 flying from DFW airport to Montreal via Toronto.  In this case, electrical arcing caused a smoldering fire near the rear lavatory of a DC-9-32.  The fire continued to smolder and damaged the electrical systems on the aircraft including pitch trim. The captain elected to make an emergency landing in Cincinnati.  Upon landing, the captain ordered an evacuation.  Upon opening the doors, a flash fire erupted killing 23 out of the 46 passengers and crew onboard.  In this case, the decision to evacuate the aircraft was the right one. However, the fire had spread significantly since the time it was first detected.