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

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.


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