With new technologies comes new questions especially in the firefighting world.  In 2011 Boeing delivered the first 787 to ANA (ALL Nippon Airways) introducing to the world the first commercial aircraft in which major structural elements are made of composite materials rather than aluminum alloys.  787s are flying into international and U.S. airports frequently now, and aircraft manufacturers are expanding the use of composites. Emergency responders need to know how to cut into a composite fuselage in case they can’t get the doors open during an aircraft emergency.

In the 2014 Boeing Fire Department acquired a section of a 787 fuselage through the generosity of the 787 program to conduct tests of different blade types while cutting on composite material.  These tests have led to the following recommendations.

Using a minimum of a 14 inch diamond-tipped blade on a rotary rescue saw demonstrated the most effective tool for this purpose.  Although all of the rotary blades common to aircraft rescue firefighting were successful in cutting the material the diamond tip blade provided a very smooth cut and showed better durability. As a multipurpose blade it also frees our firefighters from having to changes blades based on the material.

The best area to cut is forward and aft of the wings.  If at all possible the emergency responders should avoid cutting directly over the wings due to significant structural reinforcement and therefore, more difficult to cut through.


Before cutting on composite or any material it is very important to emphasize the importance of Personnel Protective Equipment (PPE).  Personnel should be in full protective clothing with bunker gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). This same level of personal protective equipment (PPE) with SCBA should be worn regardless of aircraft material.  Any material that’s being cut or exposed to fire has the potential to give off a toxic atmosphere, and all aircraft accidents that involve fire or any potential off-gassing should be considered hazardous whether the situation involves an aluminum or a composite fuselage.

Cascading water over the fuselage while conducting the cut will reduce airborne particulates and sparking.  This is a best practice and recommended for any cut regardless of material. It also provides the firefighters making the cut a higher level of safety.

Boeing’s specific cutting recommendation

  1. Always use full PPE to include SCBA, regardless of the type of aircraft material being cut or being exposed to heat or fire.


  1. Recommend a rotary rescue saw with a minimum 14 inch diamond tipped blade. This setup has proven to be the most effective since diamond tipped blades cut through both composite and aluminum with ease. This saves time and money and more importantly, the firefighter doesn’t expel valuable time identifying the material being cut in order to choose the proper blade for use.


  1. Cascade water over the cut to limit particles becoming airborne and control sparking.

  1. Cut forward and aft of the wings. Avoid cutting directly over the wings due to significant structural reinforcement and therefore being more difficult to cut through.


  1. The recommended cut-in area is 12 inches (31 centimeters) above and 12 inches (31 centimeters) below the windows and wide enough for responder to gain access. Our recommended cut sequence 1.Top, 2.Far side, 3. Bottom, 4. Near side.
    • Far side
    • Bottom
    • Near side

This sequence of cuts demonstrated NO pinching of the blade while conducting the bottom cut.

  1. Every aircraft incident that involves fires should be treated as a hazardous material incident with full decontamination procedures in place.


  1. Post-accident investigators must have PPE and respiratory protection, and make sure that all skin is covered. (None of these provisions are unique for composite fires.)


The desired end result was to identify the most effective technique for emergency responders to gain access into a composite fuselage in an emergency when no other accesses are available.  With support and input from valued partners at Boeing, Boeing Fire, The Port of Seattle Fire Department, Snohomish County Airport (Paine Field) Fire Department, and The Washington State Fire Academy we believe these recommendations to be of great value to the ARFF industry.  Our hope is that this will drive positive dialog within your own organization around tactics and strategies. Being as prepared as possible will help ensure a higher level of safety for passengers, crews and our fellow firefighters.


More information on this and other aircraft rescue firefighting information can be found on Boeing’s external web site.  http://www.boeing.com/commercial/airports/rescue_fire.page.   If you have questions, you may contact the author, J.R. Hudgins:  phone: 425-294-2552, e-mail  john.r.hudgins@boeing.com


About the Author:

J.R. Hudgins is the Boeing Fire Department Assistant Chief Training/Safety and has been with the Boeing Company since 1986.  He is responsible for training and safety oversight for fire personnel at all Boeing locations across the US. He also leads the Boeing Extrication Team for the CST-100 Starliner.  Boeings return to manned spaceflight. Before joining the Boeing Team J.R. was active duty for 4 years in the U.S. Navy.