What happens when the brakes on an airplane overheat?

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When the aircraft lands, pilots’ priority is to quickly and safely reduce their speed to a level at which it is safe to taxi away from the runway and to the grandstand. This requires very powerful brakes, which must be built to withstand the immense energy transfer required. Heat is a by-product of this and can sometimes cause the brakes to overheat.

Stopping a speeding aircraft on the runway can put enormous pressure on its brakes. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple theft

How and why do the brakes overheat?

As Flight mechanic reports that when the brakes slow an airplane by applying pressure to its wheels, they transfer kinetic energy into thermal energy. Under extreme circumstances, this immense transfer of energy can cause them to overheat, posing the risk of a landing gear fire. As such, the brake use protocol is designed to mitigate this risk. For example, the brakes will often be removed after an aborted takeoff, as this is another situation where they will have been put under more pressure than usual.

The risk of brake overheating is particularly high when an aircraft lands at a higher speed than normal. Even greater energy transfer is required to slow the aircraft down to a safe taxiing speed in these cases. Flap-less landings, like the one involving a WestJet Boeing 737 in July 2020, typically require the planes to land at a higher speed. So, if a plane signals that it is going to make such a landing, the airport will often prepare its fire departments, just in case.

Incident involving Pegasus Airlines

Simple Flying has reported a handful of incidents in recent years where overheated brakes have forced the evacuation of the aircraft in question. The most recent of these took place in February 2020 at Düsseldorf Airport (DUS), Germany.

Pegasus 737
A Pegasus Airlines Boeing 737 was evacuated in Düsseldorf in February 2020 after ground staff noticed sparks emanating from its wheels. Photo: Getty Images

This incident saw sparks emanate from the wheels of a Pegasus Airlines Boeing 737, arriving from Istanbul, Turkey. Upon landing in Germany, the overheating of the brakes caused flames to appear around the aircraft’s wheels, as the ground crew reported.

Although the fire has not been extended, it is always better to be safe than sorry in these cases. Thus, the plane was evacuated, without any injuries, as a precautionary measure.

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Landing gear light on an Azur Air Boeing 767

A similar incident also occurred the previous September, involving an Azur Air Boeing 767. This event occurred at Barnaul Gherman Titov International Airport (BAX), Russia, where the subject aircraft landed from Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Azur Air Boeing 767
An Azur Air Boeing 767 suffered a landing gear fire due to suspected brake overheating in September 2019. Photo: Marvin Mutz via Flickr

In this case, the landing gear caught fire as it exited the runway, with overheating of the brakes again being the suspected cause. Once again, a preventive evacuation of the aircraft was ordered. Of the 331 passengers on board, 20 sustained injuries during this process.

Have you ever taken a flight where the plane’s brakes have overheated? Perhaps you witnessed this while scouting? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.


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