A Pilot’s Worst Nightmare

During lunch with a fellow GA pilot I asked about the toughest airplane problem he encountered flying his Piper Lance. “Fire in flight” was the chilling response. A wiring problem that began smoldering at altitude. He was fortunate to have enough time and a close airport  to make an emergency landing, especially since he had no extinguisher on board.

I can’t think of anything worse. First you need to deal with the fire, and then the adventure of making an emergency descent and landing. When’s the last time you practiced a maximum spiraling descent? Then, after building up all that airspeed, find a landing area, probably off airport, and bleed off all that speed to make a survivable crash landing. If you were lucky, the quick descent might blow out the fire. If not, it gets you closer to terra firma before you have in flight barbeque.

This pilot (begins page 2) did everything right in an incredibly close call while flying at night:

The instrument panel lighting suddenly dimmed momentarily and then returned to normal brightness. (The passenger) smelled something burning and noticed that “it’s getting hot back here.” I could see what appeared to be a small, orange dot, centered on the lower right-rear seat cushion. As I watched, it grew rapidly as flames burned through the leather seat material…. As I continued the descent, a highway overpass loomed out of the darkness. The interstate was easy to find with all the headlights from cars and trucks, even though there were no streetlights along this stretch of road. With excess airspeed I reduced my rate of descent to pass over the bridge and then brought in full flaps as I reduced the power to idle. I touched down on the centerline of the northbound lanes.

The passengers made it. The plane- not so much. The pilot attributed his survival to having aircraft systems and emergency procedures down cold. Turns out that the rear seat springs shorted out the battery terminals when the rear seat was improperly repaired. Once again,  no fire extinguisher on board.

My first personal experience was after climbing through 2,000 feet in a  C182 after engine repairs.  The cockpit filled with the smell of fuel vapor. I can’t say I was scared but I was focused and plenty nervous. I awaited the inevitable heat coming through the firewall and hoped to avoid any sparks from the panel that would create a small Hindenburg. It was hard not to recall an accident at my airport that roasted an award-winning E-Racer in flight. Fortunately, I was able to RTB and shut down without incident.  A fire is more likely to occur under the cowl in an older plane due to age or faulty maintenance. A cherry-red turbocharger or a crack in the exhaust system can ignite the spray from a broken fuel or oil line to create an impromptu blast furnace.  The second time involved toasting a bird’s nest in the engine compartment after reaching cruise altitude. You can’t easily access the engine compartment in a Skylane (unlike other planes) so while it was my responsibility, I didn’t look under the hood before launching.

The most common fire is one that erupts during engine start. A cold weather start is perfect for an engine fire, particularly if you get carried away with the primer in a plane without fuel injection.

It’s not just piston engines. There was a surprise in the L-29  jet as well. One cold morning, after climb out, it was getting cold. After turning on the heater, the cockpit immediately filled with black smoke. (Black smoke usually signals an oil fire, fuel usually burns bright orange). As soon as the pressurization and heating system deactivated the smoke cleared. We found out later there was a buildup of dust on the heat exchanger, so when the heater was activated, the bleed air from the engine caused it to burn off.

Lessons learned? Preflight carefully, memorize the in flight fire checklist; carry an extinguisher and practice like your life depends on it. Sometimes it does.

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