In-Flight Fire: What To Do?

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Tuesday morning's fatal crash of a Cessna 310 in Sanford, Fla., soon after the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit, should be a reminder to pilots of how fast smoke and fire can travel in an airplane. According to a January 2006 article in AVweb sister publication Aviation Safety, "an in-flight fire is a bona fide emergency [and] you could have a matter of seconds before the fire incapacitates you or causes catastrophic engine or airframe failure, or more than enough time to find the nearest airport and land." In any case, time is of the essence during an in-flight fire since "the elapsed time between the first indication of a hidden fire and the point at which an aircraft is catastrophically uncontrollable has ranged between seven and 35 minutes, with an average of 20 minutes," according to a study referenced in the story. Possible indications of an in-flight fire are odor, smoke, component failure or uncommanded operation, sudden drop in fuel flow on fuel-injected engines, tripped breakers, hot spots, and/or electromagnetic interference. The article also gives some sage advice on what to do if an in-flight fire should strike your airplane.

Job one is that "you've got to get the airplane down and stopped so you can get out of it. There's little choice." On the way down, there are a few things mentioned in the article that you can do to try to extinguish or slow the fire: "If you think that the fire is airframe or engine related, turn off the fuel; if it is electrical, then turn off the master and alternator switch; if flames are visible, fight the fire immediately; if they aren't, do everything you can to find the source." Other bits of advice: always know where your fire extinguisher is located, don't reset popped circuit breakers, never ignore a strange odor or smoke, and, most important, "Fly the airplane. Land. No amount of fire extinguishing agent will help you find a runway, or a clearing." The Aviation Safety story recommends that a Class A/B/C fire extinguisher be carried aboard every airplane and that pilots reacquaint themselves with FAA Advisory Circular AC 20-42C, "Hand Fire Extinguishers for Use in Aircraft." An optional, but suggested, addition are smoke hoods, which have a multi-year shelf life and can buy "about 15 minutes of time," since they convert poisonous carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, in addition to keeping smoke out of your eyes.