Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fire In Front

In a fire scenario, aircraft control can be lost at any moment

Whether the FAA-prescribed protection is enough to assure survival depends, in large measure, on how quickly a fire is discovered by the pilot so that an emergency response can begin. If you're flying along at 7,500 feet and a fire has been burning in the engine compartment for two minutes before you recognize it, you've only got three minutes to get down before the FAA-prescribed time for fire resistance expires. While that doesn't mean that everything is going to fail and create an inferno, it does mean you'll need a hefty descent rate and all the skill and luck you can muster.


The NTSB recently finished its investigation of an in-flight fire that occurred on September 20, 2009. At about 5:50 p.m., a Piper PA-32R-301T crashed in the Everglades, 22 miles west of the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE), Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Part 91 personal flight was on an IFR flight plan in visual conditions. The private pilot and three passengers were killed, and the airplane was destroyed. The flight originated at Gainesville Regional Airport, Gainesville, Fla.

The flight was being handled by Miami Approach Control at 5:45:47, when the pilot issued a "Mayday" call and reported a "fire in the engine." The controller radioed, "Are you going to try and make it to Executive Airport—that's the closest to you, sir." The pilot replied that he had "smoke in the cockpit and we're trying to get to the nearest airport." Radar data revealed that the airplane was on an assigned heading of 110 degrees, at an altitude of 3,800 feet MSL. The airplane subsequently continued on its assigned heading, but a 300-foot descent was noted.

The controller told the pilot that "Pahokee Airport" [Palm Beach County Glades Airport, Pahokee, Fla.] was the closest airport, 24 miles from his location. The controller then asked the pilot if he wanted to go to Pahokee or "get to Exec?" The pilot responded, "We'd like to get to Exec," and added that he thought he still had power, that "we've lost one cylinder..." and "...that we can see some fire coming off the nose," and that the smoke had dissipated in the cockpit. The airplane maintained an altitude of 3,500 feet for a short period of time before descending to 3,400 feet.


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