Smoke in the cockpit

September 9, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

Untitled-2A UPS 747-400 freighter crashed in Dubai last week after attempting at least one and possibly two approaches in VFR conditions. It’s early in the investigation so my usual disclaimer applies – It’s never too early to speculate and these comments may be completely off base. The crew reported smoke in the cockpit and returned to airport of origin. They were aloft for quite awhile after declaring the problem as opposed to diverting to some reportedly closer airports. So let the Monday morning quarterbacking begin.

If this had worked out the crew would have been hailed as decision-making heroes. It didn’t – so there will likely be some responsibility/blame somewhere. Would a divert to a closer airport worked better? Too soon to say. The flight was aloft for about 30 minutes after the crew declared an emergency – this was about 20 minutes after takeoff.

I’ll offer some opinions and you can feel free to chime in: Fire anywhere on an aircraft outside the engine(s) combustion chamber is a very big deal. It does bad things to the airframe and the occupants – often very quickly.  Late reports indicate that the fire may have started in the cargo area. Kind of makes you think about what you might be carrying.  Freighter crews do not have the luxury of knowing for sure and must depend on the integrity of the shippers and the handlers that hazmat materials are appropriately marked and managed.

I’ve never had a fire on board but the  general guidance is to get it on the ground – quickly. According to a Wall St. Journal article there are about 1,000 reported fires or smoke on board transport category aircraft annually. Obviously this ranges from minor smoke smell to the real McCoy . Most of the time it all works out but this time not.

SB08The NASCAR Cessna 310 landmark accident in Florida perfectly illustrates the point. On electrical fires the guidance these days is that when a circuit breaker pops – do NOT reset unless it is flight critical. There was a reason for an overload to occur and that troubleshooting should take place on the ground. Fuel fires, burning tires, and cabin fires are no less critical.

We  would be curious to hear of any smoke or fire experiences from you or from pilots you know. My sense is that treating these problems as a very big deal is appropriate. Things can go from “not too bad” to “Aw Shucks” in less than a minute or two.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • http://RSS2.0 Bruce Ruby

    Is it known if the flight donned the oxgen/smoke masks?

  • http://RSS2.0 Bruce Ruby

    Is it known if the flight crew donn the smoke masks?

  • http://RSS2.0 Bruce Ruby

    Is it known if the flight crew donned the smoke masks?

  • http://aopa Robert House

    It is my understanding that the crew reported that the smoke was so thick that they could not see anything. If you are unable to stop the smoke, goggles or PBEs will not help you see. Remember the Swiss Air MD-11 that experieced smoke in the cockpit off the coast of Nova Scotia a few years back. Instead of making an overweight landing immediately, the crew decided to dump fuel down to landing weight, but never made it to a runway before the aircraft exploded.

  • Richard D.

    You never had a fire? Really?! I thought they were more frequent…

    1- On a Seneca, burning odor while airborne. By shutting down everything and turning things back on, one at a time, we found the nav lights were shorting out under the instrument panel.
    2- Upon engine start on a Grumman Traveler, we found the same burning odor once we turned the avionics. Found another short under the instrument panel. Again.
    3- Engine fire during engine start on a C152. My student had over-primed. Flames quickly disappeared after cranking the engine.
    4- On a Citation XL, climbing through 5,000 feet, pax yelled:” I’ve smoke in here!”. Turning around to see him, the smoke was so dense, I could no longer see him. Thinking there is no smoke without fire, we quickly made an emergency landing. Found that the ACM had overheated, and the fiberglass casing around it had started to melt. this was explaining the smell, which was not electrical for once.
    5-Again on a Citation XL, right at rotation, “Emer press” came on, also associated with smoke. Alhtough this was at night with low IMC, we were able to quickly come back using an ILS.

    5 times in 17,500 Hrs. Frequent? Perhaps not, butfor me, it just means that it happens!…:-)

    As for this UPS crew, I would not be surprised if they find Lithium batteries on pallets in the cargo hold. They should be treated like HAZMAT!!!

  • Mark LeRoy

    Flying C-130s in the military, I experienced two airborne fires. The second was the most “exciting”. Two pilots (both of us instructors, he was in the left seat and PIC), a flight engineer (FE), and a load master (LM) were on board. On a left downwind at a neighboring field to our base (roughly 10 miles distant) the LM said, “I see smoke coming from under the flight deck.” I told the PIC we could simply turn left and land. He elected to fly back to our home base, which was 10 miles straight ahead. This would put us on a left base for landing.

    We couldn’t smell nor see any smoke. We did not, at this time, don our O2 masks. On short final, about 3 minutes after the first signs of smoke appeared, smoke started billowing out from under the flight deck, in to the flight deck, and the LM started hollering the situation had gotten worse. We donned our O2 masks at this time, told the tower our emergency state and we would be evacuating upon landing, and I told the FE to turn off all the engine driven generators in the hopes that only essential power would remain and that the smoking unit was NOT emitting from any of the essential items. We touched down, exited the runway, performed the evacuation checklist and evacuated.

    Once we safely outside the aircraft, and while the firefighters assumed control of situation, the PIC walked up to me and said, “Next time I will make two left turns and land.” With a smile on my face I replied, “I think that would be a good idea.”

    The on board fire situation went from fairly benign to seemly out of control in the matter of minutes. What caused the smoke was a transformer rectifier (TR) unit under the flight deck. I learned how quickly fires can spread and how much smoke a fairly small electrical item can produce once it decides to catch fire.

    My experience tells me to land ASAP when an on board or suspected on board fire occurs. I’d rather be on the ground, away from the aircraft with the highly trained fire fighters fighting the fire than be airborne fighting the fire myself.

  • Wayne Anderson

    In the middle of the night enroute from Japen to Hawaii as Captain on a Northwest 747-400 I smelled electrical smoke. A flight attendant came up to the cockpit and confirmed it was also smokey in the main cabin, were we had 413 passengers. I was fortunate in that when I turned off every fan switch I could in the cockpit, after about 15 min. the smoke dissipated. We were over Midway Is. and we considered landing there, but when the smoke dissipated we continued on to HNL. The cause of the smoke was found to be burned wiring in one of the overhead exhaust fans in the passenger compartment. Luckily I had turned the exhaust fans off and that solved the problem.

    A few weeks later good friends of mine were killed in the Swiss Air crash near Nova Scotia caused by a fire in the cockpit of a MD-11. In that case, had the pilots immediately descended and landed overweight at Nova Scotia they might have survived. A big if, but had that happened before my incident, very likely I would have elected to immediately start down to land at Midway Is. when I had the smoke. My recommendation is any time there is smoke to land immediately and trouble shoot on the ground.

  • Harold Marchant

    I have had several cases of smoke in the cockpit in 20,000 hours +. I feel that every pilot should know what he can do without in his aircraft. In most light aircraft if you are VFR you can turn off the master switch and the plane will fly just fine. As the aircraft get larger and more complex a person needs to give all the systems more study. If memory serves me correctly you could kill all the electricity in a DC-9 and it would fly just fine however in the 747 killing all electrical would cause all engines to quit.

  • Brian Knoblauch

    Thankfully no in-flight fires yet (at only 240 hours), but I’ve had 4 in-car fires over my 18 or so driving years. The first 2 times I shutdown the car and bailed out immediately. The last couple of times I continued driving as long as possible. Probably not wise, but you kind of get used to it and don’t consider it an emergency if you’ve survived with no major issues before. I can see that easily leading to the downfall of a pilot who’s survived smoke in the cockpit on prior occasions…

  • Thomas Close

    Bruce—shame on you for jumping on this before anyone knows enough to make intelligent observations. Twenty minutes in a B747-400 is a heart beat. Maybe they should have gotten on the ground sooner, maybe they were working as fast as they could, particularly given the time-zone differences with which they likely were dealing. It’s good to make safety generalizations when the data become clear, less so before the data are clarified.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Thomas…. This is not intended as being critical and perhaps the disclaimer comments about Monday morning quarterbacking and that it is very early in the investigation weren’t clear enough.

    The nice thing about a forum like this is it allows other people to comment with their thoughts and observations. Looking at the early poll results seems like many of us have not given much thought to fire. It’s rare and perhaps that’s what makes it even more dangerous. I’ve asked the ASF team to do a little research on the prevalence of in-flight fire on GA aircraft so that we might better understand.

    I’ve made way too many assumptions regarding accidents before the final report came and have written on many occasions that many “experts” ( like me) have the luxury of seeing the whole puzzle laid out after the fact. We have hours or days to study it. Then we proclaim that the pilot or crew should have done this or that. That’s much different than being in the seat and having a few minutes or less to sort things out.

    Thank you for the reminder !

  • Kirk Brink

    I had to read your post 3 times to make sure I had it right. ” It’s never too early to speculate and these comments may be completely off base”.

    You’ve got to be kidding me! That irresponsible sort of blather is in direct opposition of the protocol of any civilian or military professional organization. We as professionals should immediately begin our own introspective analysis, but public statements based upon partial information can lead public opinion astray, misdirect investigations and prevent the finding of causal factors.

    20 minutes into a climb in a 747-400 covers a lot of ground and gains a whole lot of altitude. I am faced with divert scenarios in a simulator every year in the 757/767. The “closest suitable airport” may be directly below you but you would have to destabilize the flight path greatly to spiral down to it.

    Using a rule of thumb of “triple the altitude” would put a divert airport from 35,000′ at a distance of 105 NM. the decision to return to point of departure would have been influenced by this and the factor of reprogramming FMCs which were reported to be failing, while wearring smoke goggles and oxygen masks. All this, while handling a smoke evacuation checklist and turning a jumbo jet around.

    That being said; I have experienced 2 inflight fires in my career. Both electrical and both limited to a single component.

    First, on downwind visual approach to KDTW in an Embraer Bandeirante. The First Officer switched on a recirc fan, as per the checklist. A shower of sparks began to cascade between her knees. I told her; “Perhaps you should switch that off”; Which she did and the fire immediately ceased. An expedited approach brought us safely to the runway.

    Second, I was flying a civilian L382 Hercules in Africa. It was night, cruising at FL 280 working our way through a line of thunderstorms. Suddenly smoke began to roll out from below the single radar display. The caustic smoke had me gagging and coughing with one short intake of breath. Having a smart professional Flight Engineer paid off that night.

    He had circuit breaker positions memorized. So he donned his mask, pulled the radar indicator CB, whipped out the multi-tool from his belt pouch and unfastend the 4 dzus fasteners holding the offending display. Having freed the display, unscrewed the cannon plug and heaved the unit back into the cargo hold. The smoke cleared quickly.

    Continuing through the line of thunderstorms was made easier by a trick I use to this day. When face with weather, pick your flight path, then estimate the times and headings required. If you lose the display or attenuation makes things unclear, you have a backup plan.

    Sadly, TSA rules prevent us from able to remove a smoldering electrical component from the flight deck. Under Part 121 I am not trusted to carry a multi-tool on my belt.

    My own personal airplane, a Maule M5, came equipped with circuit breakers that can not be pulled, only reset. These I am replacing as various work is done on the electrical system. Without the option of eliminating a single component, you must fight an electrical fire in a light aircraft by turning off the master switch, usually preferable to burning, but brings on it’s own set of problems.

    Think and reflect upon accidents, but be professional in your approach and statements.


  • james gordon

    28,000 hours and 50 years, it finally happened to me. On take-off from a high altitude airport in New Mex. in a Piper Saratoga t/c the engine begin to surge and miss-fire. Climbing for alt. and turning to down-wind I did everything I could think of but, nothing helped. I could fell it getting hot in the cockpit and then smoke started to come from under the instrument panel. I turned off the master and did a 180 back to final and by then the cockpit had filled with very toxic fumes. I opened the vent window and swing out a fresh air scoop that had been installed (Thank goodness ) this allowed me to breath fresh air. I turned the master back on to make sure the gear had locked down. After landing during roll out I shut everything down and bailed out as it came to a stop.
    Long story short. Just came out of an annual and fuel injectors had been removed, cleaned, and reinstalled. The right rear had not been tightened properly and started to back out, spraying fuel into the engine compartment. Just behind that was the turbo-charge and exhaust, which set the fumes on fire. The fire got the fire-wall so hot that the materials in the forward baggage compartment caught fire.
    Lady Luck was with me that day. I was close to the ground and close to an airport. The total time was 3-4 mins. in the air.
    Fire in the air is like a forest fire— it can get out of control very quickly. Any delay getting on the ground if you can not identified and stop the source could be a disaster.

  • Victor Steel

    I was a Private Pilot with about 450 hours, departing Greensboro, NC (KGSO) for some VFR airwork with an instructor friend in my Cessna 182 Skylane. As I rotated and began to lift off, I thought I noticed a slight wisp of smoke from behind the panel. It was very faint, so I continued, but also continued to watch closely. When I reached about 500 AGL, smoke began to pour out from behind the panel, smelling like an electrical fire.

    I immediately contacted tower, and stated “we have smoke in the cabin, I need an immediate return to land”. The tower immediately responded “cleared to land — any runway”. I then shut off the master switch as I turned back to the airport. The smoke dissipated, confirming it was an electrical problem, and I landed without incident. I did turn on the master and radio briefly after I was back on the ground; and let the tower know the situation wasn’t critical and that we’d taxi back to the FBO. We were met there by the fire trucks, but there was no further smoke.

    It turned out that, after some work had been done to the avionics, the large relay for the landing lights had come loose behind the circuit breakers on the panel. When I added power and pitched up for takeoff, the relay had moved to a position where it could short against ground.