Images of the burning and burnt-out Airbus A350 carcass of Japan Airlines Flight JAL 516, are circulating around the world, following the aircraft’s early January 2024 crash into a coast guard plane at Haneda Airport. The deaths of the coast guard crew and the scale of the A350’s devastation make the safe escape of all 379 Japan Airlines passengers all the more remarkable for commentators online.
Carbon fibre data trove
Aviation industry observers are attributing the survival of the plane’s passengers and crew at least in part to the Airbus’ lightweight carbon-composite fibre skin.
One independent industry analyst, Alex Macheras, described the passengers’ escape as “extraordinary” and said “the fire seemed to be contained in the left wing area due to firewalls made of materials which become combustible at much higher temperatures.” This was enough, according to Macheras “for the almost 400 people on board to safely evacuate the aircraft.”
“Almost 400 people aboard that A350 and all got out safely after sustaining heavy damage. A lot of analyses and small-scale tests on carbon fibre just got a massive trove of new data,” Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of The Air Current, agrees with Macheras.
At the time of the A350’s birth back in the 2010s , Airbus too hailed the advent of the aircraft’s skin as “more burn-through resistant than a metallic equivalent”. But as Japan Transport Safety Board experts, alongside French and Airbus officials, investigate the crash, it’s notable that Airbus appears to have rolled back slightly from those early claims. According to The Independent, Airbus is “not comparing the endurance and performance of different aircraft designs at the moment when an investigation is underway.”
Instead of claiming “more burn-through resistance”, an Airbus spokesperson was only willing to say the composite carbon fibre is “just as robust as previously used metals” with tests showing “a similar level of fire resistance and protection as aluminium”. In a long list digressing from the crash to the environment, they were also keen to point out that, as well as fire, the lighter material is resistant to material fatigue, as well as bird strikes, hail storms, engine failure, lightning, and rust, and is “a step-change to the long-haul market, with a reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions of around 25 per cent.”
It’s worth noting that the large majority (more than 70%) of the airframe is made from what Airbus have called “advanced materials” including composites, titanium and “modern aluminium alloy.”