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

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.


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