On December 21, 1988, a terrorist bomb detonated in the luggage hold of Pan Am flight 103 causing the 747 airliner to break up over Lockerbie, Scotland, and killing 243 passengers, 16 crew, and 11 people on the ground. To help prevent such a tragedy from occurring again, a European consortium, including the University of Sheffield, is developing Fly-Bag; a flexible fabric and composite liner capable of containing explosions inside an aircraft to improve its chances of survival.

Despite vast improvements in airline security since the Lockerbie disaster and the 9/11 attacks, a bomb going off in the hold of a plane remains one of the worst scenarios. Technologies like the Hardened Unit Load Device (HULD), which is a sort of armored luggage container, have been developed, but they are heavy, costly, and suffer from the tendency of rigid armor to shatter and create shrapnel when it fails.

Developed a consortium that includes Britain, Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, Fly-Bag gets around many of the drawbacks of rigid anti-bomb containers by using a liner made up of multiple layers of composites and fabrics like Aramid, which is used in ballistic body armor. The idea is to create a material that is light, flexible, and easy to install, has high strength, and is impact and heat resistant enough to limit explosion damage to aircraft and passengers.

Andrew Tyas is research leader on the project for the University of Sheffield

Fly-Bag has already undergone extensive laboratory testing, but this week it got a more practical demonstration at Cotswolds Airport, near Cirencester when it was used to line the luggage holds of a disused Boeing 747 and an Airbus 321. These were then subjected to controlled explosions of varying strength to demonstrate the ability of the liner to contain an explosion from a bomb concealed in the hold of an actual aircraft. These tests were followed by an explosion without the lining to show how bad the damage could have been.

The University of Sheffield team that conducted the test described the results as "extremely promising."

"Key to the concept is that the lining is flexible and this adds to its resilience when containing the explosive force and any fragments produced," says Andy Tyas, of the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, who is leading the research at the University of Sheffield. "This helps to ensure that the Fly-Bag acts as a membrane rather than as a rigid-walled container which might shatter on impact."

The Sheffield team believes that the liner could one day become standard safety equipment and could also be used in passenger cabins to contain suspicious items discovered in flight.

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