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NC5 Investigates: Unsafe to Fly?

Video Shows Explosive, Flammable Airliner Wiring

Kapton arc tracking (Source: Ed Block) Kapton arc tracking (Source: Ed Block)
PVC/nylon test (Source: FAA) PVC/nylon test (Source: FAA)
Mary Schiavo, former FAA watchdog Mary Schiavo, former FAA watchdog
Ed Block, wiring safety advocate Ed Block, wiring safety advocate
Don McCune, former Northwest pilot Don McCune, former Northwest pilot

"NewsChannel 5 Investigates" has uncovered video the public has never seen.

It's video that shocked some of the folks who are fighting to keep our planes safe, and it raises questions about whether some airliners might be unsafe to fly.

It's the result of a nine-month investigation led by our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams, and it follows the recent grounding of hundreds of planes so their wiring could be reinspected.

In the case of those MD-80s grounded by American Airlines, the wiring has a history of almost-explosive sparks.

And a recent report -- uncovered in the Federal Aviation Administration's own files -- suggests it's one of two types of wires that "should not be used in airborne applications."

(Click here for the quoted excerpt.  Click here for the full report.)


It's a part of air travel that you don't see. At 30,000 feet, you're surrounded by miles of highly charged electrical wire.

"It's over top of you, underneath the floor, on either side of the aircraft," says air safety advocate Ed Block.

But, now, test videos -- most obtained from the F-A-A's own files -- show how some of that wiring can virtually explode. Another type, if it catches fire, might never stop burning.

"I've never seen it, and I've been involved in aviation safety for 20 years," Block says, watching one of the videos.

But it's a safety issue that, former FAA watchdog Mary Schiavo says, the agency knows full well.

"They know it's a problem, but they hope it won't become a disaster before these planes are phased out of service," says Schiavo, who served as inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Take, for example, the MD-80s that American and Delta airlines were recently forced to ground for wiring inspections.

In that case, it wasn't just any type of wire.

It was a wire called Kapton.

"You are going to see an initiation point," Block says, pointing to video of Kapton wire igniting. "And you can see it's burning like sparklers on steroids."

Block, a former Defense Department wiring specialist, set up the test. It shows how the current can jump from a crack in the insulation of one wire to another, with the insulation itself causing a violent flashover.

That flashover is a reaction called "arc tracking."

"It's a chemical reaction of the insulation material -- originally made by duPont, who makes dynamite," Block explains. "It almost looks like dynamite when it's exploding and actually running up the wire bundles in both directions."

And the FAA's own tests show Kapton is more likely than any other wiring to arc track, producing temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

(For more information: Which Aircraft Have Kapton Wiring, and What's the Problem?)

In the case of the MD-80s, the FAA had warned of a potentially "unsafe condition" in which arcing wire could cause "loss of auxiliary hydraulic power, even "a fuel tank explosion and consequent loss of the airplane."

"It's a terrible fire hazard, and it could bring down a plane," Schiavo says.

In fact, when a SwissAir MD-11 crashed into the Atlantic 10 years ago with a fire on board, Kapton was suspected as the culprit.

Still, the FAA and the airline industry insist that Kapton is perfectly safe if it's handled correctly.

But our investigation discovered reports filed by the airlines that, safety advocates say, are warning signs.

Those reports, called "service difficulty reports," contain dozens of references to Kapton's "burned wires."

In one report, a "wire bundle that runs under [the captain's] feet has numerous wires burned thru and others [are] fire damaged."

And in another,  "wiring burned holes in [the] fuselage."

"What hasn't happened," Schiavo says, "is a recent catastrophe, a recent crash, a recent loss of a jetliner because of it. Those are the statistics that the FAA responds to."

Then, there's the wiring found on other older airliners, primarily DC-9s -- like those still flown by Northwest Airlines.

PVC/Nylon --  as it's called - never passed the first flammability test that the FAA developed more than 35 years ago.

(For more information: Which Aircraft Have PVC Wiring, and What's the Problem?)

Still, FAA researchers discovered in one test that, once ignited, PVC wiring was even more flammable than anyone knew.

"This is a lot more than I would have ever expected," Schiavo says, watching video of the FAA test.

It's an image that shocked a former Northwest Airlines pilot.

"Goodness gracious," Don McCune exclaims.

"You would expect that the wiring in the commercial airliners would be able to take a hit, so to speak, and then put itself out -- but it didn't look like it was every going to go out."

Block says, "A picture is worth a thousand words, and there it is."

And even after the test flame dies out, the fire continues to rage - putting out a thick smoke filled with deadly hydrogen chloride.

"The smoke is totally toxic and can kill you," Block says, "and usually kills the people in a fire before they die of the fire. The smoke is that toxic."

In fact, in 1983, the pilot of this Air Canada DC-9 managed to land it with what was believed to be an electrical fire on board. Still, 23 people died.

And eight years ago, an AirTran DC-9 made an emergency landing after an electrical fire that severely burned the wiring.

Add to that, service difficulty reports from other PVC planes about "burned wires," "80 burned wire segments," and "wiring burned, exposing bare wires."

"They should be the first ones grounded -- anything with PVC nylon should not be flying today," Block adds.
While the FAA would not allow the people who ran these tests to be interviewed, agency officials point out that commercial air travel is as safe as it's ever been.

Still, the safety advocates say the videos show that the agency is playing with fire.

"Soon or later," Schiavo says, "you will have a fire in the airplane -- and you will lose it."

An FAA spokesman says "any type of wire should be acceptable" if it's handled correctly.

But in the study, commissioned and just published by the FAA, some of the nation's top experts say PVC/nylon and Kapton "should not be used in airborne applications."

Block says passengers need to demand that Congress investigate this issue.

As for when you fly, Mary Schiavo advices, pick the airlines with the newest planes -- and, if you can, stick with those.

Back to NC5 Investigates: Unsafe to Fly
How Old Are Aircraft Flown by Selected Airlines?
Which Aircraft Have Kapton Wiring, and What's the Problem?
Which Aircraft Have PVC Wiring, and What's the Problem?
How Safe is Airline Wiring? Statements from the FAA
How We Did the Investigation, and How You Can Investigate Your Airline?

Back to NewsChannel 5 Investigates

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