WASHINGTON — Federal aviation officials have known for years that cockpit window heaters in some Boeing planes catch fire. But they haven’t required airlines to fix the problem, even after dozens of incidents that unnerved pilots and, in many cases, forced emergency landings.
Pilots have complained about heaters that burned, smoldered or sent electric currents dancing across cockpit windows since at least 2002, according to an Associated Press search of a NASA aviation safety database. Safety investigators have traced the problem to a simple loose screw.
None of the reported incidents was deadly, but they were scary. Sometimes, flames would reappear after flight crews had blasted them with fire extinguishers. In many cases, the window heater would cause an inside ply of windshield to shatter into spidery cracks that obstructed pilots’ view. Sometimes, pilots and instrument panels were sprayed with glass.
Pilots reported having to remove their oxygen masks in smoky cockpits in order to reach circuit breakers or grab fire extinguishers.
The National Transportation Safety Board has prodded the Federal Aviation Administration to make airlines fix the problem, concerned that a major accident could happen if nothing is done. The FAA has yet to mandate the repairs, although it has promised the NTSB since 2004 that it would.
“There is no shortage of information. In fact, there’s no shortage of incidents,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in an interview. “What’s missing is the will to do something about it.”
The FAA did propose a safety fix in March 2008, two months after heavy smoke filled the cockpit of an American Airlines 757 flying from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia. The flight was diverted to Palm Beach, Fla., while terrified passengers were instructed on procedures for a rough ground or ocean landing.
“It was absolutely horrifying. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Rebekah Conrad, 23, who was among two dozen students who held hands, sang hymns and prayed through the ordeal.
More than two years later, the FAA’s safety fix still is not final. The regulator promised to expedite it after a cockpit fire last month forced a United Airlines 757 to make an emergency landing at Washington Dulles International Airport. In that incident, United pilots emptied one fire extinguisher on the flames, and sent a flight attendant for a second extinguisher after the fire reignited.
The FAA hopes to issue a final order next month, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. He said the process has been slowed by the FAA’s obligation to respond to airlines who objected to the proposed remedy. Also, Dorr said, the FAA and Boeing have received new information about the extent of the problem.
Boeing has acknowledged at least 29 incidents globally involving cockpit window heaters in its 747, 757, 767 and 777 models since 2002. Their tally includes only those incidents where there was evidence of flame or smoke, not emergency landings due to electrical arcing or cracked windows.