Cargolux 747-8F at High Risk of Explosion!

Failure to defuel a helicopter shipped in a Cargolux 747-8F presents a high risk of explosion to the aircraft.

The Bell 412EP helicopter with the fuel leak, destined to be shipped to Germany, was being transported on the 747 from Houston to Luxembourg on 30 March last year. With a planned intermediate stop in Glasgow Prestwick.

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Ground crews at Prestwick discovered a fuel leak from the helicopter and emergency personnel, summoned to the scene. They found fuel pooling beneath the jet. It had leaked from the main deck, through the lower deck and avionics bay.

Firefighters stated that measured fuel vapour levels “indicated a high risk of explosion” and fuel flammability limits were “potentially in range”. Some 255kg of fuel or 322 litres had escaped from the helicopter during the transatlantic flight.

Before being shipped, the inquiry says, the helicopter spent two months in storage in Houston, without problems. There was no evidence of a fuel system issue.

Investigators point out that the helicopter’s structure was shrink-wrapped for transport. The probe suggests the manner in which its fuel vents were wrapped could have resulted in a siphon effect or a temporary deformation of the fuel cells as cabin pressure changed. Causing fuel to be ejected from the forward right-hand vent, which had been left exposed.

The helicopter, serial number 36414, had been bought by Germany’s Agrarflug Helilift from Bristow US. The inquiry says that the opportunity to check that the helicopter had been defuelled prior to transport was not taken.

Investigators state that the buyer assumed the seller would disassemble and prepare the helicopter for shipping in accordance with guidelines from the helicopter’s manufacturer. Which recommended defuelling. The seller considered that all transportation matters were the buyer’s responsibility. Although the seller was aware that the helicopter was being shipped as air cargo.

“Neither the seller’s staff undertaking the disassembly, nor the buyer’s representatives who were subsequently in attendance. They identified the fact that a substantial amount of fuel remained on board the helicopter prior to it being packaged,” says the inquiry. Which also points out that the shrink-wrap packaging procedure involved using an open-flame torch.

It had been loaded onto another Cargolux flight, three days before the Prestwick incident, but the loading supervisor noticed a small fuel leak. The helicopter was offloaded and returned to the warehouse. Video surveillance shows that, the following day, the helicopter was subjected to a 30min inspection at a cargo facility. This was conducted by a mechanic, shipping agent and ground-handling agent. No walk-around was performed and the mechanic did not use any tools to remove the shrink-wrap on the helicopter. Instead they just inserted some absorbent pads and informing relevant parties that the leak had originated from residual fuel in the lines.

As a result, they issued a certificate stating the helicopter had been purged of all fluids and was not considered dangerous goods. There was a “dilution of responsibility” among the various individuals and organisations charged with shipping the helicopter, says the inquiry.

“No single organisation or individual was able to assure that the shipping documentation reflected the actual condition of the helicopter,” it adds.

The five-year old 747-8F (LX-VCF) suffered extensive fuel contamination. Internal floor, ceiling and sidewall panels were lifted and damaged insulation blankets were removed. Aircraft electronics and avionics wiring required decontamination.

It was ferried back to its home base on 11 April, nearly two weeks after the event. It underwent further measures to restore it to full airworthiness. Including replacement of insulation blankets, panels, and parts of the cargo-loading system. The aircraft was also inspected, cleaned and treated with corrosion-inhibiting fluid.


© Brandon Magnani

© Bell Helicopters

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Jake Smith
Jake Smith
Director of Special Projects - Jake is an experienced aviation journalist and strategic leader, regularly contributing to the commercial aviation section of Travel Radar alongside leading strategy and innovation including livestreaming and our store.


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