What Now?

By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091

This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the May 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

Spring has finally
arrived, and for some of us, that means recurrent training. In preparation for
the flying season, one of the activities with which we’re often engaged is a
review of procedures, perhaps in the form of a hangar flying session or group
discussion. As part of this yearly ritual, I recently spent some time reviewing
the emergency checklists for the airplanes I fly. In the process, I turned up
some interesting discussion points.

When it comes to
emergency procedures, we need to have the immediate actions committed to
memory. These are the items we need to address reactively, without pause or
reflection. After that, we pull out the checklist to finish up the remaining
details. But as we review these procedures in the comfort and safety of our
living room or a classroom, without the pressure that comes in a real emergency,
we might find that some scenarios are dealt with vaguely or not at all. Since
dealing with such issues in flight is no time to be finding out what is missing
or confusing, it’s a good idea to take a closer look at our emergency
procedures, break them down, and analyze the details. Since every emergency
situation is different, we can glean a lot by running through some scenarios to
refine our thinking and figure out what we really need to focus on under
different conditions.

Cabin Fire on the Ground

Probably the most likely
time for an engine fire is on the ground during start, and many checklists
cover that scenario in detail. But it isn’t the only ground fire scenario to
consider. The actions we should take in response to a cabin fire might depend
on where the smoke is coming from — the cockpit area, passenger area, or the
baggage area. We might also consider whether the engine is running and if we are
moving or stopped. Clearly, there are more factors to consider than are typically
explored in most emergency checklists.

If we have passengers
onboard, evacuating them might be a higher priority than determining the source
of the fire, since it can spread quickly and some of our passengers might not
move as quickly as we would hope. The first order of business might be to stop
the aircraft and shut down the engine(s) so the prop(s) is stopped, and then help
get the passengers out. Depending on where we are and the situation, maybe a
radio call for assistance early on in this scenario would be helpful. Once the
passengers are safely out, we might determine the source of the fire and use
the extinguisher as needed.

Electrical or Cockpit Fire When Airborne

Perhaps nothing is more
frightening than an in-flight fire, and our instinct might be to put that fire
out as quickly as possible. For an electrical fire — generally announced by the
appearance of white smoke and an acrid odor — the first step is to turn off the
master switch to eliminate the ignition source. Opening a window or cabin vent
can help rid the cockpit of the toxic and eye-burning fumes that generally
accompany such a situation.

But what if the source
isn’t the aircraft’s electrical system? These days, we’re much more likely to
carry and use any number of portable electronic devices, all of which are
powered by high-power-density batteries, some of which have been known to suffer
internal shorts that can cause overheating, fires, or even explosions. Here we
might be tempted to use the fire extinguisher to put out the fire. However, unless
we happen to have a halon fire extinguisher on board, it’s hard to imagine a
scenario in which discharging the extinguisher in the cockpit would be a good

Several years ago, I was
teaching a recurrent ground school session when a pilot made the mistake of
discharging a typical dry chemical fire extinguisher in the classroom. It was
just a quick burst — nowhere near a full discharge — and the classroom was
large. Still, the incident quickly caused us to evacuate the room due to the
choking, eye-burning, and respiratory distress that quickly ensued. Based on
that one experience alone, I can only imagine that discharging a dry chemical
fire extinguisher in the tight quarters of an airplane cockpit would quickly
result in the incapacitation of the pilot. Let’s face it, the pilot who cannot see
or breathe can’t do much else, so any positive effect of the extinguisher might
quickly be negated.

Engine Fire While Airborne

An engine fire while
airborne is a serious situation, regardless of the flight conditions or whether
we’re flying a single or twin. The primary indication of an engine fire is
usually black smoke pouring from the engine nacelle or flames licking the cowl.
In one remarkable account I read decades ago, a pilot successfully landed his
light twin after discovering an engine fire. Shortly after touchdown, the wing
literally fell off the airframe. Had he still been airborne at the time, the
situation would have ended entirely differently. The message we can take from
that story is the importance of getting on the ground quickly before the fire
causes structural damage.

Sometimes engine fires
can fool us. A fellow instructor once had a fuel spider break in flight that
sprayed the engine compartment with fuel, which subsequently ignited when it
contacted the hot turbocharger. But the black smoke we associate with engine
fires was not the first indication of a problem. The first was engine roughness
caused by the lack of fuel reaching all cylinders. Next was white smoke and the
smell of burning plastic in the cockpit — generally associated with an
electrical fire — which was caused by the overheating of the scat tubing that
served the cabin air and heat system. The pilot’s first reaction was to turn
the aircraft back toward the airport from which he had just departed, and that
is likely what saved the day.

Engine Failure After Takeoff

Lest we get the idea that
it’s just fire-related emergency procedures that can use a review, rest assured
that other checklists need a dose of close scrutiny. When an engine failure
occurs shortly after takeoff, we don’t have a lot of time to ponder,
troubleshoot, or reflect on our situation. We generally need to act reflexively
to manage the variables to our best outcome. That typically means setting up
for an immediate landing and avoiding any steep turns that could cause us to
quickly lose altitude or control.

That said, the most
likely cause of engine failure immediately after takeoff is loss of fuel
pressure, so if we can do anything to potentially restore power, it would be
turning on the boost pump (if so equipped) and switching the fuel selector to
the fullest (or a different) fuel tank. In a light twin, rather than rushing to
feathering the failed engine’s prop, we might want to ensure those boost pumps
are on as soon as we push the mixture, props, and throttles to the full power
position in response to an engine failure.

Certainly, the procedures
published in the pilot’s operating handbook and on the emergency checklist we
use are essential to successfully dealing with many emergency situations. But
as we work through various scenarios in detail, we can refine our processes and
better prepare ourselves for dealing with the many factors that come into play.

Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.

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