Smoke in cockpit is fairly common, pilots say
Smoke and hot gas were flooding into the cockpit of John Cox's small private plane.
"The engine heating system was overheating and started blasting smoke, oil and hot gas into the airplane," the pilot recalled. "There was a fair amount of smoke and it was hot and we needed to return to land. I declared an emergency.
"We landed, and a fire truck chased us out on the runway."
It was Montgomery, Ala., 1973. But the landing burns in Cox's memory. So do the other times he had to make emergency landings because of smoke in the cockpit.
There were the two times, as a commercial pilot, he was flying 737s full of passengers when galley fires broke out. Vents in the ovens used to warm food shorted, creating smoke.
Then, there was the time he was flying a twin-engine Piper, similar to the Cessna 310R that crashed in Sanford July 10, when he could see a fire in one engine. He was diverted to another airport and landed safely.
"I took a sailing class one time and the instructor said there is no worse place to have a fire than on a wooden ship," Cox said. "I thought, no there are two worse places: a wooden ship and an airplane."
Cox, an airline safety consultant in Washington, D.C., and other pilots don't think enough is being done to combat the problem of smoke in the cockpits of airplanes. As the former chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association International's safety committee, he and other pilots tried to push Congress into requiring cockpit smoke detection and safety devices on planes.
Cox said FAA figures show in-flight fires, smoke or fumes account for three precautionary landings of airplanes a day.
Smoke in the cockpit is so common that pilots even have a name for it: "burnt toast." Usually a pilot can find the source of the smoke and get rid of it -- much like unplugging the toaster at home -- but if not, smoke can have tragic consequences.
As federal investigators continue to search for the cause of the Sanford crash, they do know the pilot's call for an emergency landing was triggered by smoke in the cockpit.
Reports of smoke in cockpits are daily occurrences, but few result in crashes, said Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the National Transportation Administration, referring to the Sanford crash.
"The mystery here is what was burning with enough intensity to put smoke in cockpit," said Edward Booth Jr., a Jacksonville aviation attorney. "Usually if it is an electrical short, you can shut off the master switch and open the window. But there is something unusual here, like engine oil feeding the fire."
For pilots, smoke in the cockpit is the symptom of a problem, as in "where there's smoke, there's fire."
"Burnt toast is not that thick of a smoke, but any time you've got a burnt toast source that gets enough fuel, it can become a dense and continuous smoke," said Jonathan Parker, whose company EVAS Worldwide makes smoke protection devices.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal analyzed 184,516 reports in the FAA's Accidents and Incidents database between 1973 and June 25, 2007 to determine the most common causes of smoke in the cockpit.
Smoke in the cockpit was reported in 742 accidents/incidents, causing 22 deaths and 89 injuries. The smoke was caused most often by electrical power problems.
An analysis of data on Cessna 310s, showed six reports mentioning smoke in the cockpit, including three on 310Rs.
The smoke was caused by problems with the heating and communications systems and the DC regulator on the plane's generator or alternator. No one died in those cases.
Cox said the Cessna 310R is not known as being "prone to fire."
Pilots are trained to deal with smoke because it is so common. Some fear the pilots who died in Sanford, Dr. Bruce Kennedy and Michael Klemm, simply had too little time -- two minutes from the time they reported the smoke until the plane dropped off of radar -- to do much. Or, they may have been rendered unconscious by the smoke.
"If you get an electrical fire, you shut off the master switch, but plastics, radios, transmitters and transformers can burn toxic fumes that would incapacitate you in a minute," said Max Berger, an experienced pilot and Cessna 310R owner in Port Orange.
Cox and other pilots would like to see airplane manufacturers required to install EVAS, which stands for Emergency Vision Assurance Systems, on all planes. The system allows pilots to see flight instruments through thick smoke in the cockpit. The device displaces smoke in the cockpit and inflates to cover the plane's windshield and instruments. Pilots lean their faces against the EVAS and can breathe through a filtered system so they won't lose consciousness.
The EVAS system, which is approved and certified by the FAA, is not required on all aircraft. It is not known whether the NASCAR plane included such a system.
There's no way to say whether the system would have saved the lives of the pilots or the three killed on the ground in Sanford, Cox said. No one will ever know.
Chris, thanks for an interesting article. I honestly don't understand why the FAA has not required EVAS. Clearly it would save lives.
ignore this post, sorry
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