Precious time (5 minutes 30 seconds) was, therefore, lost between the time the captain was informed about the fire and his decision to begin the emergency descent
At 1904:07, after the first officer returned from his first trip aft, Flight 797 was about 14 nmi northeast of Standiford Field, Louisville, Kentucky, at FL 330. Had the emergency been declared at this time and the descent started, the plane could have landed about 3 to 5 minutes earlier than it had landed at Cincinnati. Although it is not possible to determine whether the shortened flight time would have delayed or prevented the flash-fire, the decreased exposure time of the passengers to the toxic environment in the cabin would have enhanced their ability to escape after the cabin doors and over-wing exit windows were opened. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that the delayed decision to descend contributed to the severity of the accident.
The first officer turned off the air conditioning and pressurization packs in the belief that the airflow was feeding the fire. The resulting loss of circulation accelerated the accumulation of smoke, heat, and toxic gases in the cabin and decreased the time available for evacuation.
Considering the fact that the captain had to make the emergency descent and landing in extremely adverse condition, i.e., several of his flight instruments had become inoperative due to loss of AC power, and he had difficulty in seeing the instruments in the smoke-filled cockpit, he displayed outstanding airmanship in landing the plane safely.
The flight attendants' efforts during the emergency descent, landing and the evacuation also contributed significantly to the survivability factor. For example, they had successfully moved the passengers forward of row 12 as far away from the source of the smoke and heat as possible. Their selection and briefing of able-bodied male passengers to open the four overwing exit windows were similarly successful. Most of all, the flight attendants' initiative to distribute wet towels to the passengers and instructions to breathe through the towels or other items of clothing (although this was not provided in the SOP of the airline) is believed to have aided in the survival of some of the passengers.
Installation of smoke detectors or promulgation of operating procedures for the frequent inspections of lavatories by cabin attendants must be made compulsory on all turbine-powered, transport-category aircraft for early detection of lavatory fires.
Emergency oxygen bottles along with full-face smoke masks for each cabin attendant must be provided on turbine-powered transport aircraft in order to permit the attendants to effectively combat lavatory and cabin fires.
A government/industry task force on aircraft fire prevention should be organized to review design criteria and formulate specific modifications for improvements with respect to the fire potential of such enclosed areas as lavatories in turbine-powered aircraft.
Inspectors should review the training programs of their respective carriers and emphasize in their SOPs that their flight-crews must take immediate and aggressive action to determine the source and severity of any reported cabin fire and to begin an emergency descent for landing if the source and severity of the fire are not positively and quickly determined. The fire-fighting SOP must also incorporate hands-on training in the donning of breathing equipment, the use of fire axe to gain access to the source of the fire without risk to essential aircraft components, and training for effective use of appropriate hand fire extinguishers on an actual fire (pp. 76-77)
The interior cabin panels of transport category airplanes, including panels of the lavatories and galleys, which can be safely penetrated with a fire axe, be clearly identified and the knowledge may be imparted to the flight attendants and the flight crew.
Automatic-discharge fire extinguishers should be installed in lavatory waste paper containers on all transport aircraft since fires activated by a carelessly thrown cigarette butt or a burning match in waste paper containers are quite common (Noland, 2007).
Recommendation for floor lighting and clear, illuminated markings to lead passengers to exits in dense smoke. (Ibid.)
Use of less inflammatory and flame-resistant material may be used in the interior of transport planes, e.g., seat covers and cushions. (Ibid.)
Aircraft Accident Report: Air Canada Flight 797." (1983). National Transport Safety Board. June 2, 1983. Retrieved on May 3, 2008 at http://amelia.db.erau.edu/reports/ntsb/aar/AAR86-02.pdf
Noland, D. (2007). "Ten Plane Crashes That Changed Aviation." Military.com. October 13, 2007.…