Fire in Flight: Give It A Thought
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.