It had been a long day. Fatigue gnawed at me like the blade of a dull knife, numbing my senses, sapping my strength and fogging what little brain power I had left. Flying the Southwest in July isn't always fun.
Far ahead, I could barely make out the glow of lights from Las Vegas, my final destination of the day. I had left Wichita at noon, hoping the time change would let me make the West Coast before dark, but deviant weather and winds aloft hadn't been willing, blowing at a raggedy 25 knots on the nose.
My old Bellanca Cruisemaster had struggled to overcome the headwind, but the bottom line had been about 115 knots, and after a fuel stop in Santa Fe, I had decided to overnight at the on-airport motel at KVGT, North Las Vegas. My destination of Long Beach, Calif., was only another 200 nm down the road, but that just wasn't in the cards on that night.
The airport rolled reluctantly toward me as I started downhill from 10,500 feet. The sun had set a half-hour before, and the darkness of gathering night overtook me as I lined up on a long downwind leg. I called the tower, extended the gear, hit the pump and flaps, and...MY GOD, I'M ON FIRE.
Without warning, smoke erupted from the panel and quickly began to obscure the instruments. I sat up in the seat, paralyzed with fear. This couldn't be happening.
I chopped power, opened the left wing window, dropped full flaps, punched the mic button and said, "Vegas tower, 85N is on fire. I'm landing downwind."
I kicked the airplane into a full-flap slip, lined up on runway 25 and did everything possible to slow for the landing. The smoke continued to billow from the panel, as I struggled to remember what I had learned from an ex-Air Force instructor 20 years before, when I was working on my first license. He had said something like, "The best thing to do with smoke coming from the panel is kill the master. There's a good chance the fire might be nothing more than electrical wiring, and if you shut down all electrons, it may go out by itself."
I did what he had suggested, knowing it wouldn't work. It did. As I crossed the threshold, the smoke started to dissipate. I landed, in a manner of speaking, coasted to a stop on the high-speed turnoff, and bailed out of the wood-wing Bellanca, hoping I had guessed right.
Apparently, I had. No flames, no smoke, just an empty Bellanca sitting on the taxiway with its polished prop still loping along at idle. Oh yeah, I thought, better shut it down.
The fire truck finally caught up with me as I killed the mixture, and the big prop spun down to a dead stop. The next morning, a mechanic crawled under my panel and found a mess of scorched bare wires, about $650 worth.
I'm happy to report that my second inflight fire was of a similar nature, so benign I didn't even know it was happening. I was ferrying a new Malibu across the Atlantic, and a wire bundle under the cowling burned up without my knowledge. I did lose a number of electrical accessories—all external lights, cockpit indicator lights, gear warning horn and a few other things, but the wizards at Iceland Air in Reykjavik, some of the world's best ad lib mechanics, had me back in the air in two days.
If you have to have a fire in an aircraft, electrical may be the least dangerous type to have. The vast majority of fires in little airplanes are electrical in nature, and that often translates to self-extinguishing.
Fires in flight are extremely rare, especially on piston-powered, general aviation aircraft. NTSB has precious few statistics about the problem. If the fire is a result of old or poor wiring, as in my classic Bellanca, and doesn't bring the airplane down, the damage is often repaired in a short time, and the problem isn't reported. If the airplane crashes and is consumed by fire, it may be difficult to determine the source, so once again, inflight fire stats are sketchy.
Another fire source that may not be so easily controlled but can be almost totally prevented is one caused by a cigarette. An airplane, any airplane, is a poor place for cigarettes, and that's one reason the airlines banned anything that produces an open flame years ago. What you allow in your personal aircraft is up to you, but there's a tongue-in-cheek placard that most of us endorse wholeheartedly, "If you must smoke, please step outside."
Two good friends, brothers and fellow members of a flying club, were flying their airplanes to the Colorado River for a weekend of boating. Both were good formation pilots, and Ed's Bellanca Viking was snuggled up 20 feet out on the wing of Dewey's Bonanza. Dewey looked away for five seconds to check a chart, and when he glanced back, Ed was nowhere to be seen. Dewey looked around frantically, finally dropped his wing, and saw Ed in a screaming dive toward the Mojave Desert two miles below.
One of Ed's backseat passengers had been smoking, and when Ed asked him to put out his cigarette, he had done so in one of those small triangular metal ashtrays that folds into an armrest.
Unfortunately, one of the eyeball air vents in the aft cabin was positioned just right to blow directly onto the armrest, turning the ash tray into a miniature blast furnace. Smoke began seeping into the cockpit from behind the side panel, and Ed did the only thing he could think of. He got the airplane on the ground at 29 Palms Airport in record time. Fortunately for Ed, the small fire had already extinguished itself for lack of additional fuel.
Fuel-fed fires usually aren't self-extinguishing, and there's often not much a pilot can do to fight them in personal aircraft. Too often, fuel fires can result in a near-conflagration, especially on single-engine airplanes, without extinguishing systems.
Engine fires are perhaps the most common of these, and they're the toughest to handle, as most pilots have few alternatives. Many times, there's little choice but to shut down the engine, turn off the fuel and electrical systems to isolate combustible materials from the flame, and take your chances with an emergency landing.
Not all fuel fires are automatically terminal, however. In ferry flying, we're taught never to fill the cabin ferry tanks to the very top. That's sometimes a tough rule to follow on the Pacific, where the legs can stretch to 2,300 nm, e.g., Honolulu to Pago Pago, American Samoa. Most pilots want every ounce of fuel they can get for such long overwater hops.
Trouble is, if you fill every ferry tank and turn on the heater, the heat outlets for the aft cabin, conveniently located on the floor, can cause avgas in the ferry tanks to expand, work its way around the threads of the three-inch gas cap and seep out onto the top of the tank.
One pilot was flying the Pacific one night in a Cessna 310, pushed the mic button on her Yaesu HF radio to transmit a position report back to San Francisco, and heard a muffled "woof" from somewhere behind her. The portable HFs we use over the ocean create a fairly large spark inside the radio during transmission, and in this instance, that spark was enough to ignite the slick of gas on top of the forward ferry tank.
The pilot looked back, saw tiny flames flickering along the top of the tank, and lacking anything better to put out the fire, used water from a gallon bottle. She knew that was the wrong extinguishing agent, but it was all she had. Fortunately, she got away with it, and the flames died out.
Some manufacturers install firewall shut-off valves and recommend the valve be closed at the first hint of fire to inhibit flames from entering the cockpit. If your aircraft isn't fitted with a shut-off valve, at least make certain the heater is off before opening a vent to drain off the smoke. Otherwise, the suction may pull the fire through the firewall and in on top of you. There's a reason the forward barrier between cockpit and engine is called a firewall. It's designed to protect the cabin from any anomaly out front long enough to allow a pilot time to figure out Plan B.
Turbocharged engines can complicate the fire problem. Turbos generate more heat than you'd believe. Thirty-five years ago, I flew a new Piper Seneca II across the Atlantic at night on my first ferry flight, destined for the 1977 Paris Air Show. Out over the ocean level at 11,000 feet, I looked out at the left engine and was amazed to see what appeared to be a fire inside the cowling. I turned to my sleeping copilot, Globe Aero owner Phil Waldman, and just as I was about to shake him awake, I noticed that the right cowling was also emitting an orange glow. Before I embarrassed myself by waking up Waldman, I checked the instruments. Everything looked normal.
It was the Rajay turbochargers, glowing through the louvers as they churned out compressed air at 30,000 rpm. You'd probably never see those hot turbos in daytime. In fact, you'd only notice one glowing on most twins at night without counter-rotating props. As it happens, the Seneca II uses mirror image engines that turn the props in opposite directions, so systems on the right and left side are reversed. That means both turbos are mounted on the inboard side of the engines. Anything that generates high heat is an obvious ignition source, and turbochargers are among the usual suspects.
For those flying a twin with one engine on fire, you may have the option of shutting down the burning engine and turning off all fuel to that side. You may also be able to blow the flames away from the cockpit by slipping. If you're flying a twin with landing gear that retracts directly beneath either engine, think twice about where you want the gear positioned during a fire in the wing. Rubber burns almost as enthusiastically as avgas, so you might consider extending the wheels.
If you do have a fire, and there's built-in oxygen installed in your airplane, consider strapping on a mask while you work the problem to avoid breathing the smoke. Fires rarely start in the rear of an aircraft, and that's where most O2 bottles are installed, so the oxygen system is unlikely to be compromised. If you decide to strap on a mask, be sure you wipe any oil from your face. Oxygen isn't compatible with certain types of oil, especially sun block, lubricating oils and those used in makeup, and will often ignite and cause serious burns.
It should go without saying that every aircraft should have an onboard fire extinguisher. I carry two of them, just in case, and yes, I get them recharged every two years. They're usually less than $50 each from Sporty's, and I consider mine to be the best $100 investment I could ever make.
Remember, however, that each extinguisher is worth only about one minute of fire suppression, so don't be too quick to pull the pin and squeeze the trigger until you know there's no other choice. Remember that a fine powder suppressant directed at the panel will probably smother the fire, but it will almost certainly clog up every instrument and necessitate total overhauls of everything (a small price to pay if it only saves your life once). Similarly, if you're not breathing from an oxygen mask, you may be forced to inhale that contaminated air. If you're not O2-equipped and a dry applicant is the only suppressant available, it may still be better than the alternative.
Finally, be certain you have a fire before executing any critical emergency procedures. Back in the 1950s, one of the military's primary jet trainers was the Lockheed T-33 Thunderbird. A student and instructor were flying over Texas when the instructor tried to adjust his seat and accidentally activated his emergency life raft in the aft cockpit. The raft inflated in a few seconds, pinning the instructor to the seat, and pulling out his microphone plug in the process.
aircraft should have an onboard fire extinguisher.
I carry two of them...
This had happened before, and the Air Force had developed a procedure to handle it. The instructor was jammed tightly against his seat back, but he felt along the sidewall of the airplane and found the egress assist tool, intended to help cut his way out of the aircraft in case of an accident. He pulled the tool loose, cut the side of the life raft, there was a tremendous bang, and the cockpit filled with fine talcum powder used to pack the rafts into their containers.
The USAF student up front heard what he thought was an explosion behind him and saw the cockpit fill with "smoke." With gloves, a flight suit, oxygen mask and helmet, every inch of skin was covered, and he couldn't tell that it was talcum powder rather than real smoke. He automatically assumed the engine had exploded and that the airplane was on fire, not that uncommon with the early generation of jets, so he followed standard emergency procedure. He blew off the canopy and ejected, exactly what the book said he should do.
The instructor had to fly the now open-cockpit T-Bird back to base wondering how he was ever going to explain this to his squadron commander.