Forty-Eight Years Playing with Fire ...and Thousands of lives saved later

Gus Sarkos retired Jan. 1 after 48 years with the FAA. The former manager of the Fire Safety Branch at the William J. Hughes Technical Center near Atlantic City, Sarkos participated in or oversaw the development of the following aircraft fire safety improvements in commercial airliners worldwide:

  • seat fire-blocking layers,
  • low heat and smoke release cabin panels,
  • floor proximity lighting,
  • heat resistant evacuation slides,
  • burn-through resistant cargo liners,
  • Halon 1211 extinguishers,
  • cargo compartment fire detection and suppression systems,
  • in-flight fire resistant and post-crash fire burn-through resistant thermal acoustic insulation,
  • and fuel tank inerting systems.

He is the recipient of more than 30 awards related to aircraft fire safety R&D, including the DOT Secretary’s Award for Meritorious Achievement and Partnering for Excellence Award. Sarkos was inducted into the U.S. Space Foundation/NASA Space Technology Hall of Fame for his role in the development of fire test standards for seat-blocking layers.

In this interview, Sarkos discusses the fire safety advancements that saved thousands of lives since he started at the FAA in 1969 - and the legacy he leaves behind in retirement.

What do you consider your office’s enduring legacies to the field of fire safety?

Our legacy is twofold: That of being the go-to organization, internationally, regarding aircraft fire safety R&D, and the many hundreds of lives that have been saved from our research products that have been implemented throughout commercial aviation.

We have the most extensive civil aircraft fire test facilities in the world, which we’ve built up over the past 35-40 years. This allowed us to do hands-on research and testing, enabling us to gain our expertise by learning “on the job,” so to speak, and to respond quickly to a fire problem.

(From left) Sarkos, Dick Hill, and Fred Duskin from McDonnell Douglas at the site of the future Full-Scale Fire Test Facility in 1977.

Also, most of the people who work in the Fire Safety Branch have chosen to remain here, I think, because of the opportunity to work hands-on in these facilities, and on the varying fire safety problems that have challenged us. We have over 500 staff years of experience in fire safety research.

With regard to aircraft fire safety, over time we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in post-crash fire survivability and the prevention of accidents caused by in-flight fire. For example, over the past 11 or more years there have been four airliners gutted or severely damaged by post-crash fire without a single fire fatality and 1,028 survivors. Moreover, an analysis of world-wide survivable accidents over the past 40 years shows a factor of 2-3 reduction in the probability of dying from fire. Similarly, we have incidents in which in-flight fires have been prevented or extinguished by improvements in airliners based on our research products.

How has fire safety research evolved over the years?

In the 1950s, aircraft fire safety research was focused on engine fire detection and extinguishment. In those days piston-powered engines were much more vulnerable to fire than the jet turbine-powered engines which replaced them with the introduction of the Boeing 707.

In the 1960s, a number of survivable accidents occurred with fatalities attributable to fire, raising concerns about the hazards of burning interior materials. The first flammability tests of aircraft interior materials were conducted by FAA engineers and technicians at the National Bureau of Standards facilities then in downtown Washington. Later, these small-scale material flammability test standards were set up at the Technical Center.

Sarkos conducts a fire test in the test cell of the Material Fire Test Facility in 1974.

In the 1970s, there was a major program on the toxic gas emissions from burning cabin materials. The completion of our Full-Scale Fire Test Facility in 1980 enabled us to conduct full-scale fire tests under controlled conditions throughout the year. New tests were developed for seat cushions and large area cabin surfaces — ceiling, side walls, etc. — that gave reasonable correlations with full-scale tests. A significantly more fire resistant cabin, along with floor proximity lighting that improved evacuation in a smoke-filled cabin, made a marked improvement in post-crash fire survivability.

In the 1990s, the research focus changed to in-flight fire/fuel tank explosion prevention, because of three catastrophic accidents – ValuJet (1996), TWA 800 (1996) and Swiss Air (1998). We examined, for example, the ignition and spread of fires in hidden areas, the flammability of jet fuel vapor, and means of preventing fuel vapor explosions. To do this work, we built models, scaled sections of fuselages, re-activated an altitude chamber, modified a pressure vessel for explosion testing, and continued to obtain aircraft which we either hardened for fire testing or retained their operational systems capability. The work was more aircraft systems oriented as well, including fuel tank systems, oxygen systems and fire detection and extinguishment systems. Products of that research included the installation of cargo compartment fire detection and extinguishment systems in almost 3500 airplanes, a practical and cost effective inerting system to prevent fuel tank explosions, and two new stringent flammability tests for insulation that significantly increased the in-flight fire resistance and post-crash fire burn-though protection.

Members of the Special Aviation Fire and Explosion Reduction (SAFER) Advisory Committee at the fire-hardened, wide-body test article, a modified C-133 freighter, in 1979.

Today, as in recent years, fire safety research is driven by new technology (composite aircraft structure, fuel cells), new fire threats (lithium batteries), the phasing out of effective fire safety technology because of environmental concerns (halon extinguishing agents, brominated material flame retardants), and a monumental effort by the Transport Airplane Directorate to completely revamp the FAA material flammability regulations.

Over the past several years our work on lithium battery cargo shipment fire safety has received considerable interest and action by the aviation community. The test results were a major factor in the decision by 20 or more airlines worldwide to cease shipment of lithium batteries, recommendations by Boeing, Airbus and other manufacturers to cease shipments until safe measures were put into place, and related actions by FAA and ICAO. Today our work on lithium batteries is focused on mitigation and safe shipment, including the development of packaging standards, evaluation of improved cargo containers and pallet covers, and the development of an on-board fire suppression system for freighters.

Has there been one enduring problem/issue with fire safety that haunts the industry?

The presence of emergency oxygen systems for the crew and passengers, as a causal and contributing factor to severe aircraft fire, has always been — and remains — a concern. In the past, they have caused accidents (ValuJet, 1996), contributed to fire fatalities (US Air 737/Metroliner collision, 1991), and resulted in close calls (e.g., Quantas 747 oxygen bottle failure/aircraft decompression, 2008). In 1970, a year after I began work at the Technical Center, a 737 caught fire at National Airport during re-charging of an oxygen bottle. The airplane was gutted by a rapidly developing fire. In May of this year, an Egypt Air A320 caught fire in-flight and crashed in the Mediterranean Sea, killing all on board and investigations are ongoing. In between these accidents, which bordered my career, there have been numerous aircraft gutted by fire caused by oxygen system malfunctions during servicing. Research is needed to explore safer means of providing emergency oxygen to passengers and crew.

Which individual has had the most influence on your FAA career, and in what way?

As with many individuals, my first supervisor, a kind, elderly gentleman named John Marcy, had a positive impact on my FAA career, which has been entirely in aircraft fire safety R&D. He was consistent and careful in the instrumentation of fire tests on aircraft materials, which was his area of specialty. He also encouraged the careful documentation of your work and the presentation at scientific meetings to obtain feedback and establish professional relationships outside FAA. At that time FAA’s fire safety program was relatively small. I tried to emulate him early in my career, when I was a project engineer, and have since encouraged others to do so as well. I have also been influenced by my colleague, Dick Hill, who I have worked closely with for about 40 years. Dick has many attributes and has been the major factor in the success of our program. He is an exceptional problem solver, and is able to cut through the chaff and get at the core of a problem and propose a solution, which almost always proves itself out. When confronted with a new problem or issue, I often ask myself, “How would Dick approach it?”

Recipients of the Professional Society Award at the 1984 William J. Hughes Technical Center awards ceremony: (from left) Wayne Howell, Dick Hill, Gus Sarkos, and Ed Koenke, Technical Center director.

Has your office’s fire research at the Tech Center positively affected other industries? In other words, have other industries turned to us for research or assistance?

That is one of the areas I am most proud of, and I would like to give you three examples. First, during the construction of the World Trade Center in the early 1970s, John Marcy was approached by officials from the Port of New York Authority. They were concerned about the flammability of office furniture that would be placed in the WTC towers, particularly of the urethane foam cushioning. John had done testing that highlighted the various fire hazards of urethane cushioning. We conducted some fire tests for them pro bono and recommended flammability requirements for office furniture, which the Port Authority adopted. As a small gesture of their appreciation, John and I spent a day with these folks in New York City and at JFK Airport. I got a chance to see what it was like from the 100th floor of one of the WTC towers under construction.

Second, in the late 1990s, a team led by Dick Hill, working with our technical sponsors from the Transport Airplane Directorate, developed and demonstrated during flight tests a practical and cost-effective fuel tank inerting system. That work was spurred by the TWA 800 accident in 1996, caused by a catastrophic center wing tank explosion off the coast of Long Island. Administrator Marion Blakely said, “Every now and then we have these real breakthroughs for safety, and I think that’s what we have here.” The inerting system design became the enabling technology for the fuel flammability reduction rule, adopted in 2008 — a $1 billion rule that impacted 5000 airplanes. Boeing built a system using this design and flight tested it with our instrumentation support, validating its effectiveness.

Finally, Rich Lyon and Rich Walters conceived, developed, patented and standardized the Microscale Combustion Calorimeter, an instrument that accurately measures the heat release rate signature of a material sample weighing as little as several milligrams. It was developed to facilitate the development and evaluation of ultra-fire resistant materials. However, because of its accuracy, repeatability and small sample size it is being utilized in other applications. Underwriters Laboratories is using the calorimeter to demonstrate that manufactured materials lots remain compliant with flammability standards. Boeing uses several of these calorimeters for quality control testing of fabricated composite panels. Finally, the Microscale Combustion Calorimeter continues to gain popularity by fire science researchers throughout the world, as evidence by its use in many journal publications.

Do you have any parting words/advice/insight for those who follow in your footsteps?

I’ve always stressed the importance of maintaining and upgrading the fire test facilities to meet current and future research needs. In most cases this has to be done in steps, and may require repurposing existing or acquired facilities, because of funding problems and time constraints. We often don’t have the luxury of working an important problem until a new facility is completed. Doing hands-on work creates expertise, enables you to change direction as the test results dictate, and allows you to complete your work relatively quickly to satisfy your customer’s requirements.

Sarkos lectures students from an Aviation Career Education (ACE) camp in the FAA's Full-Scale Fire Test Facility.

Also very important is to work on establishing a good relationship with your customers. We have an excellent relationship today with our primary technical customers in the Transport Airplane Directorate and the Office of Security and Hazardous Materials, who are engaged in the work we are doing. In the early days of our program that was something we had to work on, since the program was run and tightly controlled in Washington. Regular communication fosters the development of a good relationship. Productivity is also an important factor. From my experience, the ideal relationship is when you have frequent communication, and you’ve been able to engender a mutual trust and respect.

Is there anything you’d like to add, either personally or professionally, about your experiences with the FAA?

I’m proud to have worked for the FAA, with its noble mission of aviation safety and air traffic management, and to have been a small part of the remarkable aviation industry we support. I’m fortunate to have been surrounded by talented people and seeing the products of our research make travel safer. Over the years I’ve met some wonderful people, both within and outside of FAA. In retirement, most of all, I will miss the people.

For many FAA employees, each day you have a list of things that need to be done. Always put at the top of the list those things that relate to the FAA’s mission, or, if you work in a support organization, the work of others that may more directly relate to the FAA’s mission. Each of us contributes in some way to the mission of the FAA. Also, if it can be done, put some fun in your work. It certainly helps to take the edge off.

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