On 26 April 2014, a passenger checked in four bags for a Fiji Airways flight from Melbourne, Victoria, to Nadi, Fiji. The operating aircraft was a Boeing 737 aircraft registered DQ-FJH. The passenger was a certified remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operator. The passenger stated during check-in that there were no batteries in their checked bags.
At about 2230 Eastern Standard Time (EST), the aircraft was at Melbourne Airport and the passengers’ bags were being loaded. The cabin crew members were on board preparing the aircraft and the first officer was in the cockpit conducting pre-flight checks. The captain was conducting an external inspection of the aircraft. A ground engineer observed smoke emanating from the aft cargo hold, alerted the captain and notified the aerodrome rescue and firefighting (ARFF) service. The captain saw white heavy smoke billowing from the hold and immediately called the first officer to advise him. The captain directed the first officer to activate the aft cargo hold fire suppression system, shut down the auxiliary power unit and order an evacuation of the aircraft.
The ARFF determined that the source of the smoke was a smouldering case. They removed it to a safe location and cooled it with a fine water spray. The ARFF and Australian Federal Police subsequently inspected all four of the bags checked in by the passenger and found 19 batteries intact and an additional 6-8 that were destroyed by the fire.
Initial investigation revealed that an electrical short circuit involving lithium batteries caused the fire. Contained in the case were several batteries and an RPA controller. An RPA was found in one of the passenger’s other checked-in bags.
This incident highlights the hazards associated with transporting lithium batteries and the need to individually protect batteries to prevent short circuits and minimise the risk of overheating and fire.