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Volume 46 | Issue 6 | July 2004

Research Roundup

photo: 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

NASA's two specially modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft are pictured side by side at Dryden. Johnson Space Center, Houston, owns the two aircraft, but one of the two are usually stationed at Dryden.
NASA Photo /Tony Landis

FAA Fuel Tank Safety System Tested on NASA's 747

By NASA News Services

An aircraft normally used to transport the Space Shuttle has been pressed into service to test a technology aimed at making airliners safer.

Researchers from Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, arranged for a fuel inerting system to be installed aboard NASA's Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

The system, designed to reduce the chance of an explosion inside an airplane fuel tank, made its first flight tests as part of ongoing research being conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration in partnership with NASA.

Glenn's Clarence Chang proposed that the FAA use the 747, which is based at Dryden.

"I'm glad we were able to help make this happen," Chang said. "We look forward to the benefits that will be derived as a result of the flight testing."

The FAA already had tested the system using ground-based facilities. The next critical step in the technology development was the program of actual flight tests aboard a large aircraft.

The tests, completed in two weeks last month at Johnson Space Center, Houston, produced data the FAA will use to implement a recently announced policy requiring measures to reduce fuel-tank flammability in the near future.

The FAA and NASA have been working on technology to prevent fuel tank fires since July 1996, when TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747-131, suffered a catastrophic fuel tank explosion during flight. The jumbo jet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, N.Y., killing all 230 passengers.

Fuel-tank inerting technology works by replacing, in the fuel tank space open to air and fuel vapors, much of the air or oxygen with nitrogen. Oxygen accelerates fire; replacing the oxygen with nitrogen suppresses it.

To design a system that can be more readily installed on airliners, the FAA developed a relatively simple and unique technology-test system made up of existing inerting technology. The NASA research is closely coupled with the FAA efforts. Glenn engineers are studying next-generation advanced gas-separation technologies that can make inert gas generation cheaper and fuels in the tank less flammable. This work, and research into advanced fire-detection gas sensors, is part of NASA's Aviation Safety and Security Program. That program is a partnership among the FAA, aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the Department of Homeland Security to reduce fatal aircraft accident rates and protect air travelers and the public from security threats.

Researchers at four NASA centers - Glenn, Dryden, Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. - are working to develop advanced, affordable technologies to make flying safer and more secure.

For more information about NASA's Aviation Safety and Security Program on the Internet, visit

For information about NASA's work in aeronautics on the Internet, visit