Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fire In The Cockpit

Like fire in a ship at sea, fire in the cockpit can be the scariest emergency you hope you’ll never encounter

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.


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