Fire in Flight: Give It A Thought

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Fire in flight is such a universally horrible thing to think about that most of us probably just don't think about it much. But the tragic incident involving Kyle and Amanda Franklin over the weekend reminds us that we probably should think about it. Or more accurately, think about what we would do about it. Early reports suggests that the Franklin accident probably could have been a lot worse.

Fortunately, as an accident cause, fires is relatively rare. For the monthly used aircraft guides in Aviation Consumer, we plough through about a hundred accident reports a month and I'd guess that under two percent involve inflight or cabin fires. I just reviewed 72 accidents for the Cessna R182 and found one engine compartment fire and a couple of incidents of exhaust leaks that might have become fires.

That cheery statistic is cold comfort if you happen to be the poor sot confronted with flames leaping from under the panel or from the engine cowl flaps. In this podcast, AVweb editor Glenn Pew interviewed instructor Jade Schiewe about this very eventuality, which happened to him recently. It's definitely worth a listen and is as interesting for what it does say as what it does not. At the conclusion of the podcast, Schiewe makes several good recommendations but overlooks one. What about a fire extinguisher in the cabin? Let me fill that gap right now by saying everyone should have one even though the odds of it actually pulling your fat out of the fire, if you'll permit me, are probably low. On the other hand, a good Halon extinguisher—and Halon, nothing else—may be the best $100 you ever spent.

As we avoid thinking about cabin fires, one aspect that's overlooked is time: In a serious fire, you don't have a lot of it and mere seconds can make the difference between surviving and not surviving. This has been proven time and again in the accident record. What a fire extinguisher can do is knock back a blaze enough to give some extra minutes or seconds to get the airplane on the ground. In some cases, it can kill the fire entirely.

When we've tested the Halon extinguishers, I've always been impressed with how little of the gas it takes to kill a sizeable fire. The stuff penetrates well and in the case of an under-panel fire, there may be enough in the bottle to take several stabs at the fire, followed by careful cabin ventilation, for Halon itself is a breathing hazard. But smoke and chemical fumes are worse.

If an extinguisher is available, the way to use it is to follow the same guidelines you'd use at home. Call the fire department first, then turn to the fire bottle. The inflight version of calling the fire department is executing the get-on-the-ground-now plan first, and that may not necessarily include landing at the nearest airport. In a serious fire, you need to get on deck anywhere and get out of the airplane. Even an engine or exhaust fire that doesn't impinge the cabin can be torching structural members that won't survive long. At the slightest hint of fire—smoke, smell, sight—the descent plan needs to put into action without delay. You can always call it off if it's a false alarm, but the extra seconds saved in acting quickly may be determinative.

There are various ways to fly the emergency descent that I won't go into here, but the method I trained in our turbocharged Mooney was to lower the gear, slow the airplane down and extend full flaps before rolling into a 45-degree descending spiral. Without getting too crazy, that would yield up to 2500 FPM of descent. Even at that, from the high teens or low 20s, it could take eight to 10 minutes. That's an eternity in a fire scenario, which is why there's no point in screwing around looking for an airport that isn't already at the bottom of your spiral down. This is one aspect of fire risk response that I don't think many pilots of turbocharged singles consider. As far as escaping fire is concerned, being in the low flight levels or teens is like being on the moon.

If you have an extinguisher, the time to use it is during the excruciating minutes it will take to get on the ground. If there's a another pilot or capable passenger aboard, you have an impromptu firefighter to tackle the problem while you fly. In Schiewe's accident, there was either no extinguisher aboard or they couldn't find it. The instructor candidate was surely in a position to use it had it been available.

We've also tested portable smokehoods which are inexpensive and effective. Although I've always carried a fire extinguisher, I've never carried smokehoods, but I'd hardly consider overkill if an owner did. You will probably never need one. But if you do need one, you'll need it badly. Whether to invest in one depends on how you triage your personal demons.

One last point about fire in airplanes. Here in Florida, people tend to wear shorts the year round, even when its 40-degrees in February. They fly in shorts, too, but I stopped doing that some years ago. Survival often turns on the smallest, inconsequential details and habits. To me, the habit of wearing cotton jeans while flying is ingrained and provides just that slight margin of protection against fire that make the difference between life and death. Shorts won't do that. For the same reason, when practical—and it isn't always in Florida—I wear long sleeve cotton shirts rather than synthetic fabrics.

Obviously, you can take this sort of stuff to the extreme and invest in some Nomex underwear and coveralls. More power to ya, brother and sister. That might be a bit much for some of us, but I'm the last guy to toss stones at someone else's preparation. Speaking of which, my supply cabinet has three fully charged small Halon bottles left over from our last product test and after finishing this blog, I wondered why the Cub doesn't have one of those in the baggage sling.

It does now.

Comments (54)

In-flight fuel fires are beyond rare (and not something you could even fight with a tiny hand held extinguisher from inside the cockpit anyway). That's why it's not a valid safety concern.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 14, 2011 2:51 PM    Report this comment

How about the old technique of slide slipping to keep the flames away from the cabin? Turn off the fuel selector to stop feeding the fire (hopefully)


Posted by: RUSSELL L FARRIS | March 15, 2011 12:24 AM    Report this comment

And unpower the electrcal system, it may be the source.

My one inflight fire occurred on a DC-3 over thirty years sgo. very exciting, got on the ground asap, and the MIA aireport fire department put it out it was a broken hydraulic line fed by a cracked exhaust stack.

we saved the dc-3 and ouselvles...

Posted by: RUSSELL L FARRIS | March 15, 2011 12:32 AM    Report this comment

Neither of the incidents that brought up the topic were fuel fires. One was a hydraulic fire behind the panel, and the other was unknown but probably an oil fire. Either way, they're obviously valid safety concers, and a cockpit fire extinguisher would certainly have helped in the 172RG incident.

And remember that once an electrical fire starts killing the power probably won't put out the fire. It's still important to kill the power as that will stop other fires from starting and will slow down the progression of the existing one, but without some means of extinguishing that fire you're still in a really bad situation.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | March 15, 2011 2:47 PM    Report this comment

"the tragic incident involving Kyle and Amanda Franklin over the weekend reminds us that we probably should think about it."

Andrew, Watch the video and tell me if there is a valid way to fight such a fire from the cockpit. The 172RF was just as futile. If a fire starts, the game is over and the only emergency option is to crash ASAP (as in both cases).

A VALID safety concern is one that you can control. An invalid safety concern is one that is both extremely rare and completely impossible to control. YMMV.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 15, 2011 8:24 PM    Report this comment

A fire extinguisher in the 172RG accident certainly wouldn't have hurt. And it might have reduced the extent of the burn injuries the PIC sustained. The CFI candidate was curled up in a ball trying to stay out of the fire. Had an extinguisher been available he had plenty of opportunity to have at least tried to do some good with it. Wouldn't have made it any worse for them in the end (cockpit was already full of smoke so they had to stick their heads out the windows to breath as it was) and might very well have helped.

Re the Franklins, or any other engine compartment fire, of course a cockpit fire extinguisher would be useless. At least in the air. On the ground, I dunno. Probably not very useful even then, depending on the myriad of variables, but maybe it would have helped reduce the burns to one or both of them. Or reduce damage to the plane, or prevent the fire from spreading to the nearby vegitation once everyone is out.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | March 16, 2011 1:11 AM    Report this comment

A VALID safety concern is one that you can control. An invalid safety concern is one that is both extremely rare and completely impossible to control. YMMV

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 16, 2011 5:03 AM    Report this comment

Interesting topic this is. Military and many civilian aircraft have extinguisher fitted to hot spots like engine compartments that can be remotely triggered to stop fires in those places. The pilots of both tend to have oxygen masks to help them fly the stricken aircraft to a safe landing when there is a cabin fire. To fit engine compartment extinguishers in GA aircraft is too expensive and this is a hot spot on those aircrafts and the pilots do not have oxygen masks to put on in cases of a cabin fire.

Part of my training in the RRAF was firefighting and how to put out aviation fires especially on military aircraft after landing exciting to say the least with live ammunition added to the game plan.

So my view: simple leave the fire extinguisher where it is and just concentrate on landing the plane as fast as you can in case of fires. You can't do anything in the engine compartment and you will probably chew up all the oxygen in the cabin using an extinguisher (that's their primary focus to kill the fire). Unless you have the right equipment and available time to fight the fire, you are simply blowing in the wind.

PS switch the oxygen off cause that's what fires like.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 16, 2011 5:51 AM    Report this comment

I searched the database; very few part 91 certified single engine aircraft had in-flight engine fires. None of those would have benefited from a small hand-held extinguisher located inside the cabin!

It's false safety to think you can or should "fight" most fires while airborne; what you SHOULD be doing instantly is following the emergency checklist (that's what it's there for). My argument of primary response and actions are based on the POH.

As far as ground fires and safety, "I" would not run at a fully fueled 172 high wing (gravity feed)aircraft with a cowl fire. YOU did precisely the right thing and just watched it burn. Planes can be replaced.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 16, 2011 7:34 AM    Report this comment

I'm amazed at how many people are prepared to use semantics to argue against what is a pretty straightforward safety decision. Paul wasn't asking for a debate on the NTSB database, he was saying that if you don't have an extinguisher, maybe you should think about getting one.

Good luck driving around with your seatbelt off because 'it's better to be thrown clear in a car crash'. Evolution is alive and well.

Posted by: Michael Gordon | March 16, 2011 8:13 AM    Report this comment

Some people just love to argue rather than attempting to glean some useful information from someone's point of view. Thank you for a well written article! I have gleaned some useful information and am reminded to check on my extinguisher!

And Prayers are being lifted on behalf of Kyle & Amanda from here!

Pastor & Mrs. Hollywood

Posted by: Mr. Hollywood | March 16, 2011 8:23 AM    Report this comment

Good point, Paul on the synthetic material clothes. I only wear cotton or wool socks and shirt when flying. The military has graphic photos of what happens to pilots who wear synthetic in fires.

I'm always amazed that the airlines and FAA permit people to fly in shorts and shower slippers. They must think accidents never happen.

Posted by: Claude Wagner | March 16, 2011 8:29 AM    Report this comment

Like I said, single engine fires. Twins with engine fires (like your example) are obviously out-of-range of even the BEST in-cabin extinguisher.

The best way to "fight a fire" in a single is to actually have decent maintenance on the ground, not to do battle with the resulting fire. Shoddy maintenance and bad PIC pre-flights are the real safety problem.

Sure a big extinguisher in the hanger is wise; so are the ones located at the on-airport fuel pumps. The rest is best handled by real maintenance and real routine inspections.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 16, 2011 8:52 AM    Report this comment

All of this stuff - likelihood of fire, type of clothing worn, extinguishers - it can all be evaluated with Aviation Risk management. Google for "aviation risk management matrix". Plug these aspects (an others that affect you) and see what the outcome is.

Posted by: Darren Edwards | March 16, 2011 9:59 AM    Report this comment

On clothing, the Falklands war showed the folly of poly-cotton mixes (and the use of smoke hoods and gloves developed out of necessity in WW2.) There were cases where sailors survived the missile impact and the flash explosion but then found their shirt burning through to their ribs. Ouch. Most cottons provide better protection against the sun's UVs too.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | March 16, 2011 10:05 AM    Report this comment

Be very careful about following (or believing) the idiots who claim that using an halon extinguisher 'sucks all the oxygen out of the air' NO extinguisher of any kind does that. Halon forms a chemical reaction to extinguish the flame. CO 2 (the bubbles in your Coke or beer) displaces oxygen. That is usually what people mean when they refer to the above statement. The main concern is that whatever you use is discharged in a small cockpit and can be toxic in such an environment.

Posted by: Gerald Flood | March 16, 2011 10:24 AM    Report this comment

Here are my two experiences with fires .. neither turned out to be tragic. A friend of mine had a 135 Tri-Pacer that, right after take-off, experience smoke in the cockpit. He quickly made a tight pattern and got back on the ground. It was oily firewall insulation that, somehow ignited when taxiing out. He surmised that a spark from the exhaust?? .. and the surface winds while taxiing combined to ignight the insulation.

My own experience was a birds nest on top of the engine, that I did not catch .. it was a rental .. caught fire .. but only after I had landed after a three-hour flight .. it was night, but I could smell and see the smoke emerging from the cowl as I was taxiing to the ramp (Pine Mtn, GA). I quickly shut it down and managed to pull the stuff out (with bare hands). No apparent damage, believe it or not. I believe the aircraft was a C 210. Apparently the air blast in flight kept things from happening, but when I got on the ground the heat from the cooling fins ignited the nest. This particular a/c did not get a thorough pre-flight .. a 'switcharoo' was made at the last minute. Occured back in the early '70's, when plane rentals were plentiful and I was a corporate pilot. Having a fire extinguisher on board, in the cockpit, would not have made a difference in an under-the-cowl fire - except after I got out of the plane after landing. Message - birds do build nests .. in a day .. if plane kept outside.

Posted by: Dale Rust | March 16, 2011 11:55 AM    Report this comment

Bill Polits links were very helpful, as are Paul's.

Don't forget Mr. Farris' reminder of the side slip, used by pilots when engine fires were more common.

Posted by: Claude Wagner | March 16, 2011 12:26 PM    Report this comment

Let's clarify the halon issue, once and for all. Halon doesn't 'suffocate if air is displaced by vapors'. Halon forms a chemical reaction to extinguish the fire. CLEAR? Halon 1301 is usually found in piped systems or aircraft nacelles, not in portables. In piped systems, halon 1301 systems require a preactivation warning of about 15 seconds to allow personnel to clear the area as the required concentration to extinguish the fire is TOXIC (and not by displacing vapors)! halon 1211 is typicallyfound in portables as it has a lower pressure and 'streams' more directly onto the fire. Halon 1211 has a higher toxicity level. but will have adverse affects in tight quarters. Fireman don't usually fight fires with halons it is either installed in a system or found in portables. Let's TRY and stick to facts. I have served on the FAA task group for cargo bay suppression and have testified in Congress relating to the Valu Jet tragedy.

Posted by: Gerald Flood | March 16, 2011 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Fires can occur only when three element are available 1) OXYGEN 2)Fuel 3)Heat. To extinguish a fire one of the three elements need to be removed. Water based extinguishers are most commonly used to reduce the heat and stop the fire. No good for oil based or electrical fires. CO2 type extinguishers displaces (removes) the Oxygen content of the air. There are powder type extinguishers which again displaces the oxygen content leaving everything covered in powder. Removing the fuel element is dependent on the type of fire i.e. gasoline, Oil, gas etc where switching off the delivery supply will reduce the fuel to the fire. Other types of fuels i.e. wood, plastics, rubber, bricks etc can only be extinguished with one of the two fire extinguishers.

In the aircraft cabin the fire is generally burning up oxygen very quickly producing carbon dioxide which is just as deadly as any Halon CO2 or powder outputs further reducing the available oxygen to pilot and or passengers.

My point is that there is only one option and that is land ASAP and stop trying to contemplate whether to use the extinguisher or not. On the ground fires is another question and maybe a small extinguisher could provide some relief before the heavy's arrive to put the fire out proper.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 16, 2011 1:51 PM    Report this comment

Using the word 'displaces' should result in a whipping with a wet noodle. Dry powder does NOT displace oxygen (content?), it simply cools and coats. CO2 is HEAVIER than air resulting in displacing enough air so as to drop the oxygen level below the % required to ignite anything. I'm not a pilot, so I can't advise on how to fly. I do, however, know my fire extinguishers having actually made over 25,000 of them! I would get seriously sued for making ignorant claims about how they work, especially if a customer relied on what I advised.

Posted by: Gerald Flood | March 16, 2011 2:16 PM    Report this comment

Then tell us Gerald how do we put fires out? The first thing firemen are taught are the three elements that allows a fire to burn and taking away anyone of those three kills the fire?

The pilot does not need to worry about his oxygen (unless he is at great altitude) simply redirecting the air intake will ensure sufficient oxygen for her/him to survive but messing around with fire extinguisher in mid air is not a good idea (oh sorry women will tell you they can do multitasking so putting out a fire with an extinguisher and aviating is easy for them) so again get yourself on the ground quickly.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 16, 2011 3:22 PM    Report this comment

When I was doing SE charters, my passenger briefing was something like this: "Keep your seat belts buckled at all times. To release your seat belt, pull up on the metal flap. The way you got in is the only way to get out; pull up on the door handle. There's a fire extinguisher under my knees. Please don't talk during take-off and landing. Any questions?" That's pretty much the same briefing I still give, in my own airplane. A good Halon extinguisher was one of my first purchases after buying my airplane.


Posted by: Cary Alburn | March 16, 2011 5:19 PM    Report this comment

I carry an extenguisher but primarily for ground incidents.In-cabin fires, the only kind of in-flight fire an extinguisher might help with, have decreased significantly in light aircraft since so many people have quit smoking, at least while flying. Most common smoke producer is an electrical problem and shutting down the power will most likely correct it withot further action because there really isn't much to burn behind the panel. Exception would be something like an oil pressure line leak, and oil doesn't catch fire all that easily anyway. Fire outside the cabin? Good luck. Turn off the fuel, stop the engine and head for mother earth at max warp.

Posted by: John Wilson | March 16, 2011 5:42 PM    Report this comment

I remember that some fuel pressure gauges had a small fuel line that ran to the panel. Probably pre-electronic days.

Gerald Flood should write a guest article.

Posted by: Claude Wagner | March 16, 2011 6:04 PM    Report this comment

I'm getting old. Halon, wasn't that originally called carbon tetrachloride (CFC)? If memory serves me (which it doesn't these days) it was banned as was Halon 1211 a bromochlorodifluoromethane as both are ozone depleting substances. Halon 1301 does have an affect on the people using it and can cause giddiness (dizziness). Note I did say CAN. Even so this is another reason why one should not be playing around with extinguishers while aviating .

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 17, 2011 5:55 AM    Report this comment

Although exposure to halocarbon agents and their decomposition products are a concern, it is far less of a concern than the consequences of an unextinguished in-flight fire. It is critically important to quickly extinguish an in-flight fire.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 17, 2011 7:01 AM    Report this comment

n-cabin fires, the only kind of in-flight fire an extinguisher might help with, have decreased significantly in light aircraft since so many people have quit smoking, at least while flying.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 17, 2011 7:11 AM    Report this comment

Here is what I take away from this. While a fire extinguisher is not the be-all end-all for in-flight fire, it could buy you a few more precious seconds or minutes to get the plane on the ground and you out with lesser injuries. So you will see a fire extinguisher in my plane in the future.

Posted by: STEPHEN EGOLF | March 17, 2011 7:50 AM    Report this comment

When we did an avionics upgrade some years ago, we removed seven pounds of orphan wire for behind the panel. It was an ungodly mess. Lots of older airplanes look that way behind the panel.Paul makes an excellent point, most older aircraft, in particular the class that have been used for IFR, truly are an "ungodly mess" behind the panel due to multiple equipment swaps & minor upgrades.When having an upgrade done, paying a few bucks extra to the avionics guy(s) to do a thorough job of removing all the "orphan" wire they find is a worthwhile investment.

Posted by: John Wilson | March 17, 2011 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Carbon Tet, Halons and Freons are all relatives and ozone depleting. Plus, Carbon Tet is a carcinogen although it used to be fun putting it on your hand and watch it evaporate and cool! Our Air Force GCA techs used to fill water guns with carbon tet and 'shoot' it onto the electrical components to remove dust, No long term effects from that???? That 'giddiness' mentioned will lead to a heart attack if you continue breathing halon.

Posted by: Gerald Flood | March 17, 2011 8:45 AM    Report this comment

The USE of halon in critical use applications like aviation is completely, 100% legal. Halon PRODUCTION in the developed world has been banned - along with all other CFCs used in refrigeration, etc.- by the international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol since 1994. In the developing world, production was banned since the end of 2009. Halon in use in the aviation world today is reclaimed from old fire suppression systems and extinguishers, recycled to strict ASTM and Military standard specifications and legally redeployed in new extinguishers.

There are rechargeable and non-rechargeable, single-use fire extinguishers. Rechargeable Halon 1211 fire extinguishers are able to be legally recharged, maintained, etc. by any FAA-licensed repair station, using certified recycled halon.

I wonder if Kyle, who was strapped in and was therefore conscious after impact, had a fire extinguisher available to beat back the flames while he tried to extricate the unconscious, unstrapped-in Amanda? What I read was that his burns were the result of his attempts to retrieve her and that he was not sucesssful in doing so until the ARFF truck arrived. God bless them both.

Posted by: Bill Polits | March 17, 2011 10:25 AM    Report this comment

Ok Ok I give up you win. We carry a fire extinguisher mainly a 1kg Powder ABC ISOCOMP used in a bottle with compressed Helium. All good stuff you see our authorities are very particular about the Ozone and any chemical that can have an effect on the environment. Part or our MEL is a fire extinguisher so we have to ensure there is one on the aircraft during our preflight inspection and we need to inform passengers where it is along with the first aid box.

Has anyone seen a lead acid battery explode because it is being fed reversed polarity or it's being fed AC current (diode failure in alternator usually does that). Or how about what a Ni-Cad battery does when it is short circuited. You quickly realize the fire extinguisher is of little use as you could dump the whole lot onto the battery with little effect (and you can't switch it off). Considering many aircraft hide those batteries under the rear passenger seat its a good thing that doesn't happen very often.

Life is too short to worry too much simply enjoy you short time on earth and your even shorter time flying because before you know it you are too old to fly. So some would lead you to believe.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 17, 2011 10:38 AM    Report this comment

Let's make (1) final attempt to get correct information regarding halons. We are getting to fly specks now. Either or will give you the correct answers. However you interpret will provide more endless discussions. And, one more fact; A halon 1211 extinguisher can be refilled by any fire extinguishing service company who happens to have a supply of halon, certified or not. That's called 'buyer beware'. Halons are becoming increasingly rare and more costly as the remaining supplies are mainly used in aviation and off shore drilling platforms platforms.

Posted by: Gerald Flood | March 17, 2011 10:39 AM    Report this comment

The video link on laptop fires (Li-ion batteries) makes me wonder about the risks with newer "glass" avionics and their backup batteries. With units like the Aspen, isn't the battery right in the panel? Paul, any info on this?

Posted by: BRADLEY SPATZ | March 17, 2011 11:10 AM    Report this comment

I seem to recall Aspen has two battery options, a small one in the unit itself and an optional larger one. I suppose these do represent some fire risk.

Not an expert in this field, but I've read that the key to Li-ion safety is quality control in manufacture to keep the short from developing in the first place. Once one cell goes off, you're pretty much doomed. Given the number of laptops on a typical airliner, I worry about that a little.

There have been a few incidents, but it seems like a low-occurence kind of thing.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 17, 2011 11:42 AM    Report this comment

Some years ago I was flying an old C150 which experienced an inflight cockpit fire (electrical) and I had no fire extinguisher. The master switch did not control the wiring that caught fire. I won't fly any small aircraft today without an extinguisher, especially the fabric taildragger that I now fly. After the incident, I did a full search of the NTSB records available at the time and found that out of approximately 30,000 GA accidents in the database at the time, there were 32 that involved in-flight cockpit fires, or slightly more than 1 in 1000. That is rare, but not if you were one of them, which my accident was. Of the 32, half involved at least one fatality, and of the other half, only about half of them involved no injury (including mine). Fortunately the fire was on the passenger side of the cockpit and I was solo. I suffered smoke inhalation and no burns, in spite of wearing a short sleeve shirt. The plane was destroyed after landing.

It should also be noted that the skin of the C150 caught fire, and part of the smoke I inhaled was smoke developed from the aluminum/magnesium alloy, which is highly toxic. If I had been able to extinguish the wiring fire before it had expanded to the skin, I would have avoided breathing the really toxic stuff.

Posted by: Chris McClure | March 17, 2011 2:03 PM    Report this comment

That's why maintenance (especially on antiques) prevents such things. I'd rather not even have to battle an in-flight fire with all the variables of fabrics, fuel lines, and fumes. Replace old oil lines. Clean buss connections. Upgrade alternators and wiring. Learn the systems to know how to kill power even if a switch fails.

I guess if you rent, you loose control of the hardware. Then you might need portable GPS, portable intercoms, and portable personal safety devices (CO2 detector, extinguisher, etc).

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 18, 2011 10:07 AM    Report this comment

I did quite a few tests with a firewall burn rig aproximating FAA standards. The most common critical error is the use of "firewall insulation" advertised as meeting FAR 25.853. FAR Part 25 deals with transport aircraft, and the above standard only requires the material to be self-extinguishing when the heat source (a bunsen burner) is removed. It is a perfectly appropriate standard for cabin upholstery. However, when these materials are placed against a red hot firewall (2000F for 15 minutes, by FAR) most were found to burn with considerable ferocity and massive smoke. You will not stop this kind of fire with any sort of cabin fire extinguisher. The best you can hope for is to die of smoke inhalation before you burn.

DOT/FAA/AR-00/12 Aircraft Materials Fire Test Handbook

Posted by: Dan Horton | March 21, 2011 8:48 AM    Report this comment

The 135 Tri-Pacer oily firewall insulation incident that Dale Rust mentioned probably could have been prevented. I don't recall the doc numbers right now, but there is an old Piper SB/AD from the 1960's on this; there is some factory insulation just aft of the lower firewall on the belly that should be removed or it does tend to get oil-soaked and cause risk of fire.

Posted by: A Richie | March 21, 2011 9:36 AM    Report this comment

Further to comments by Gerry Flood and Bill Polits, it is true that there is a finite supply of Halon 1211. However, Google "Aviation fire extinguisher" and you will find that all of the major aviation parts companies carry Halon fire extinguishers (at reasonable prices all things considered). Small ones, large ones, gauged, disposable, Halon blends, Halon 1211 - take your pick. Just be sure that the extinguisher you buy is listed and rated by Underwriter's Laboratories, Factory Mutual, or the US Coast Guard, per AC20-42D. Such listings mandate that the extinguishing agent meet industry standards. If you are having your extinguisher recharged, ask for lab test results for the Halon being used in your extinguisher. It should meet the requirements of ASTM D7673-10 or ISO 7201-1:1989.

Posted by: Chris Dieter | March 21, 2011 10:40 AM    Report this comment

I've carried a small disposable halon unit in my Luscombe for years, velcroed onto the hat shelf behind the passenger seat, easily reachable in flight. Never had to use it, but nice to know it is there should the need arise.

Posted by: Doug McDowall | March 21, 2011 11:19 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Butler,

Please tell me about the effects of hydralic lock.

Posted by: Claude Wagner | March 21, 2011 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Dear Mr Wagner

I would be very surprised if my technical expertise was more valuable to you than that in the accident report I referenced. Did the link work OK for you ?

Posted by: R L S Butler | March 21, 2011 12:57 PM    Report this comment

>>>When we did an avionics upgrade some years ago, we removed seven pounds of orphan wire for behind the panel. It was an ungodly mess. Lots of older airplanes look that way behind the panel.

Don't discount the real possibility of an avionics-induced cabin fire. As an avionics guy, I've seen my share of fire-starters in the making and luckily most of them were during ground runs oron the hangar floor. The risk is huge fresh out of maintenance work. How about loose fuel lines at the back of a fuel flow gauge and an arching toggle switch? Or arching from the electrical bus because a piece of hardware dropped on the terminal of a circuit breaker. I'm getting spooked just writing about it....Bring a fire extinguisher and USE IT when needed.

Posted by: LAWRENCE ANGLISANO II | March 21, 2011 3:01 PM    Report this comment

Thanks Mr. Butler, I opened the link. Never thought that much about hydralic lock. Operating an engine after 45 yrs of sitting idle is asking for trouble.

Posted by: Claude Wagner | March 21, 2011 10:46 PM    Report this comment

It was actually an electric fire in a rented Mooney that made me decide to buy my first aircraft.... On rotation, smoke caused zero visibility within 2-3 seconds. Opening the storm window and cutting the master switch did the trick. I had my handheld in the side pocket as usual, so could call the tower and do a normal landing. I agree with Paul that a Halon extinguisher is a must. I thin the electric fire is the worst, the engine fire usually can be stopped with cutting fuel and speeding up.

Posted by: ROBERT ZIEGLER | March 22, 2011 4:24 AM    Report this comment

Dear Mr Wagner

The 2009 engine, sitting idle, suffered corrosion but other engines suffered the critical corrosion worse without failing. Intermittent low utilisation over the last 40 years seems not to have been nearly as important as the way in which its pilots dealt with hydraulic lock.

It seems that the engine may have suffered from 30-35 instances of hydraulic lock being overridden on start-up, because its pilots used a faulty pre-start technique, and that the resulting stresses added up to the fatigue failure of a critical component.

The pre-start technique is equally faulty for any radial engine. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of this procedure may be widespread” – not necessarily of course by Kyle, but perhaps by some of Paul’s readers.

Posted by: R L S Butler | March 22, 2011 5:13 AM    Report this comment

It also raises a point which just might not apply with modern radials or if Kyle had been scrupulous in caring for his aircraft's engine.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 22, 2011 9:07 AM    Report this comment

I've never had hydralic lock. What is the proceedure? I would imagine you would not attempt a start until the pressure reduced.

Posted by: Claude Wagner | March 22, 2011 10:00 AM    Report this comment

Ideally the pressure reduces because the nice man with the oily rag in his hands waits for you to go and have a coffee and then takes the spark plugs from the bottom cylinders.

He puts them back, having got his rag a lot more oily, and tells you "Good sir: whatever the problem was, it seems to have gone away".

If this is at your home field, he might add “… for the moment”.

Posted by: R L S Butler | March 22, 2011 10:23 AM    Report this comment

Well, I've never tried to start a sitting radial engine unless I myself, or watched others, manually pull through X number of blades. Hard to imagine otherwise.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | March 25, 2011 2:34 PM    Report this comment

Mr Weninger The pulling-through by X blades is taken for granted. It is when, in doing so, you come upon resistance that you have to think Hydraulic Lock. The only proper first response to that seems to be to drain any oil from the compression chamber of at least the very bottom cylinder.

Posted by: R L S Butler | March 26, 2011 5:39 AM    Report this comment


The sad news of Amanda Franklin's passing prompted me to look into the issue of the fire as a result of the Franklin's accident. The opening paragraph of your post suggests that the Franklins did not have an extinguisher on board at the time of the accident. I have scoured the internet for confirmation of this to no avail. Do you (or any other reader) know for sure whether there was an extinguisher on board at the time of the accident? If so, was it used? Thanks, and RIP Amanda Franklin.

Posted by: Bill Polits | May 28, 2011 4:27 PM    Report this comment

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