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U.A.E. Probe Links Lithium-Battery Cargo to UPS Crash

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—A fast-moving fire that began in cargo containing lithium batteries turned the inside of a United Parcel Service Inc. UPS -0.53% plane into a “catastrophic” chain reaction of flames and smoke before a crash three years ago in the desert outside Dubai, according to a report released Wednesday.

The 322-page investigation into the crash, which killed both pilots, backed up preliminary probes pointing to the lithium batteries as the possible cause of the blaze and drew further attention to the potential risks of the batteries in aviation.

Lithium batteries have been the subject of fire-related probes on the Boeing BA -0.83% 787 Dreamliner. The entire 787 fleet was grounded for about three months earlier this year after a fire in a battery on a Japan Airlines 9201.TO +0.19% 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport, and a smoking battery that led to an emergency landing by an All Nippon Airways 9202.TO 0.00% 787 in Japan.

The United Arab Emirates’ report said investigators for General Civil Aviation Authority found “with reasonable certainty” that the fire aboard the UPS Boeing 747-400 crash began in cargo containing thousands of lithium batteries of various designs. The chain-reaction fire quickly filled the cockpit with smoke before the plane went down on Sept. 3, 2010, about an hour into the flight to Cologne, Germany.

The report noted that investigators could not pinpoint the factors that started the fire, but noted a phenomenon called “thermal runaway.”

This is an uncontrolled chemical reaction that leads to progressively hotter temperatures. Lithium batteries are sensitive to temperature. If the batteries are exposed to excessive heat, they can short circuit and experience thermal runaway. If one battery experiences thermal runaway or catches fire, it can cause other nearby batteries short-circuit and ignite.

At a meeting in Washington last week, the director of the Air Line Pilots Association’s dangerous goods program, Mark Rogers, said the UPS plane was carrying from 80,000 to 90,000 lithium ion and lithium metal batteries as cargo and in equipment.

The report described the fire as a “chain reaction which spread to the available combustible material” and apparently was not spotted by smoke detectors in its early moments.

“The fire escalated rapidly into a catastrophic, uncontained” blaze, the report said.

The report included more than 35 recommendations, including better early-warning systems in cargo holds to detect fires, and adding equipment that could aid pilot visibility in smoky conditions.

It added that shippers of some of the lithium battery cargo loaded onto the plane in Hong Kong “did not properly declare these shipments” and did not provide battery test reports recommended under U.N. aviation guidelines.

Before publication of the report, UPS had begun implementing new systems to improve pilot vision and protocols to quickly use full-face oxygen masks when needed, said a statement from the Independent Pilots Association in Louisville, Ky.
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