New audio from Fort Lauderdale plane fire
01:46 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 31 years of flying experience. He is a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Les Abend: Airplane evacuations, such as in Fort Lauderdale after 767 caught fire Thursday, are rare and follow industry safety protocols

Abend: It appears the 767 crew made sound decisions in the emergency; critics should hold judgment until NTSB fully investigates

CNN  — 

I can almost guarantee that if you ask an airline pilot if her or she has ever been involved in an emergency evacuation, such as occurred in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, the answer would be “no” with very few exceptions. Why?

Les Abend

First, the reliability and safety record of today’s airliners is impeccable compared with other forms of transportation. They are required to meet strict maintenance standards and guidelines. Airplanes are inspected continuously using a progressive checklist of inspection items at different amounts of flight hours flown.

Airline crews are trained to high standards beyond just FAA minimum qualifications. The operation of any airline requires adherence to checklists and procedures. Guesswork is not part of the equation.

This is why we know that when the crew of the Dynamic Airlines 767 at Fort Lauderdale International Airport – faced with a fuel leak and flames as the flight prepared to take off Thursday – made the decision to evacuate, it was not taken lightly.

If an evacuation is commanded, the logic is simple: It is safer outside the airplane than inside the airplane.

Unfortunately, people may get hurt. Despite assertive commands by trained flight attendants, people typically don’t absorb the instructions; they are in shock. After all, passengers are not accustomed to jumping rapidly onto a slippery plastic slide from uncomfortable heights. Add a billowing, black fire, and panic becomes a natural reaction.

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Several injuries reported in Dynamic Airways plane fire
02:21 - Source: CNN

So what might have actually happened in this situation? A fluid leak was observed and reported by a pilot from another airplane while also on the same taxiway. The assumption being made in the immediate aftermath and in news reports is that the fluid was fuel because of the end result: an engine fire. But if the leak were apparent before gate departure, the pilot performing the walk-around inspection would have noticed.

Beyond this visual observation, cockpit instrumentation does not provide warning for a fuel leak unless a discrepancy of unequal fuel burn is noticed between wing tanks, a circumstance that wouldn’t typically occur until the plane was in flight. And pilots can’t see the wings, and thus the engines, from the cockpit.

Most likely the fuel leak was from within the engine cowl (or covering) and not from the wing tanks. Boeing designs the wing area directly behind and above the engine exhaust as a “dry bay” with no fuel, so as to prevent “torching.” But it’s a moot point for this scenario. Something caught fire.

Once alerted to a fire through visual confirmation from air traffic control, flight attendants, or both, the cockpit crew had to make an immediate decision: Initiate an engine fire checklist or evacuate the airplane? In theory, an engine fire checklist would result in completely starving the engine of fuel in addition to deploying fire retardant material, but if the fire had spread to other areas, the procedure would not have had the same result.

Obviously, the crew made the correct decision. But an evacuation also has a checklist. And regardless of the dire circumstances, the pilots must complete the checklist methodically. That’s why some passengers aboard the Dynamic Airline 767 reported they experienced a 30- to 40-second delay, despite the frightening scene they were witnessing. I’m sure the time seemed like an eternity to those folks.

The evacuation checklist is important because it involves preparing the airplane so people can reasonably expect to exit with minimal injuries. The engines have to be shut down. The fire extinguishing bottles within the engine housing have to be fired via switches from the cockpit. All electrical power, except for emergency exit lighting, has to be shut down. The brakes have to be parked so the airplane doesn’t roll as people try to leave the plane. And then the evacuation command signal, (it’s a horn on the 767), has to be activated.

If the captain determines that utilizing a particular exit will absolutely jeopardize passenger safety, this information has to be communicated directly to the flight attendants via the intercom or any other such means. Flight attendants have been intensely trained to make their own assessment as to the safety of a particular exit.

As to speculation in some news reports that the Dynamic crew should not have used the left side of the airplane because of the engine fire: That is just plain wrong. Research of actual evacuations has shown that all available emergency exits should be utilized unless passengers will encounter absolute peril. Why? If an exit point is blocked, this creates a bottleneck. Passengers will not get out as quickly. This could be the difference between life and death.

The fact that the most forward slide on the left side was deployed seems to me a good decision. The over-wing exits just above the engine and the aft exits on the left side were not deployed. Considering the fire was in proximity to these exits, this was also a good decision. Although there were some injuries, appearing to be primarily from exiting the slides, nobody died. That’s a good day in my book.

What would have happened if the airplane experienced the fire once airborne? Certainly, it would have been a serious situation. But because of the high-speed in-flight airflow through the engine, the fire would not have burned as rapidly as it did on the ground.

And the crew would have initiated an engine fire checklist, which — as with the evacuation checklist – includes the cockpit activation of the fire retardant bottles within the nacelle and the complete shutdown of the engine. The pilots would have immediately returned to Fort Lauderdale, or even Miami International Airport. An evacuation may or may not have been necessary.

This is a scenario airline pilots practice on every recurrent training cycle.

As for Dynamic International Airlines itself, let’s not jump to any conclusions. This situation could have occurred with any airline. Just because the carrier is a small and unknown operation doesn’t mean it lacks safety standards. The 767 and its engines have a proven reliability over hundreds of thousands of hours. I have nearly 10,000 hours flying the 767. Never once was I uncomfortable with the airplane.

Let’s remember that the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident in Fort Lauderdale. As with all such events, everything will be considered, and investigators will determine the factors that caused the fire. Hopefully, my industry will learn something valuable to prevent another such occurrence. And we’ll understand how to better mitigate our risks through procedures and airplane design.

In the meantime, if you are ever faced with a similar evacuation scenario as a passenger, know that your crew is doing everything in its power to keep you safe. Please, if you do nothing else, listen to your flight attendants. And make certain you leave that carry-on behind! Don’t risk the lives of other passengers as you waste precious time reaching for that bag in the overhead.

Evacuating an airplane isn’t for the faint of heart.

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