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Smoke in the cockpit, danger in the sky

WFAA-TV Also Online

Byron Harris reports
Consider it an air safety secret. Once a day in the United States, an aircraft makes an unscheduled landing because of smoke in the cockpit or the cabin.

But a News 8 investigation found that where there's smoke, there's a potential airline disaster. It's a potential the Federal Aviation Administration appears to continue to ignore.

Radioed calls of smoke in the cockpit were made by the pilot shortly before ValuJet flight 592 crashed into the Everglades.

That was also the case in Swissair flight 111's crash into the Atlantic.

"Pilot indicated he had smoke in the cockpit," said an official after the crash.

Smoke in the cockpit and cabin were reported in more than a dozen crashes that altogether killed 863 people worldwide since 1970

"An in-flight smoke event is the highest threat level that a pilot can face," said John Cox, an airline safety consultant.

The presence of smoke can quickly cause problems for the pilots. Safety hinges on those at the controls being able to see their instruments, and as smoke becomes a thick fog at more than 400 miles an hour, danger can develop fast.

As the cockpit fills with smoke, the pilots can lose their orientation to the ground and their position in the air.

"The propensity for that spiraling out of control is unfortunately very high," said John Nance, a commercial pilot author.

With signs of smoke, pilots have to don their oxygen masks, struggle to see their instruments and run a lengthy emergency checklist to pinpoint the fire, all while looking for the nearest runway.

"When we're over land, we go to our first suitable airport in point of time and get that airplane on the ground," said Paul Rice, with the Airline Pilots Association. "In the air is no time to assess fires."

Approximately 2,000 corporate jets worldwide are equipped with an Emergency Vision Assurance System, or EVAS. The system is basically a clear inflatable passageway that allows the pilots an unobstructed view of their instruments through thick smoke. A small pump keeps the passageway inflated for up to four hours.

The FAA admits in its own memos that continuous smoke in a cockpit is reasonably probable, but it has never required aircraft manufacturers to come up with a solution.

"It's been under consideration for quite awhile," Cox said.

But an FAA statement indicated there are already adequate system regulations.

"... Existing regulations and procedures are effective means of maintaining safety when smoke enters the cockpit," the FAA responded in a statement when asked about the smoke problem. "Current regulations require that a cockpit can be cleared of smoke in less than three minutes."

However, pilots say it can take fifteen minutes to an hour to find where the smoke is coming from.

News 8 discovered that the FAA has equipped its own airplanes with EVAS, which include four executive jets for FAA officials. But, the FAA continues to permit airlines to fly without it.

"It's been a frustrating time, a long haul if you will," said Bert Wejerfelt, who invented the system two decades ago.

Wejerfelt said EVAS has already saved lives in corporate jets; and he has filed a complaint against the FAA because of what he said is its inconsistency over pilot smoke.

"Pilots being able to see is about as fundamental as it gets," he said.

Jet Blue has installed EVAS on its 100 airbuses voluntarily.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines said it knows about EVAS, but that it's planes have "smoke goggles" and that the system is not in the airline's future.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines said it tested EVAS in 1999 and decided against buying it.

Some airline analysts say the real reason no big airline has EVAS, and why the FAA hasn't required it, is money.

"Our whole problem with the FAA is the feeling that industry needs to be nurtured and operating on the cheap, and the FAA itself has tried to operate on the cheap," Nance said.

The cost of putting the EVAS system on a plane is about the same cost as one pane of an aircraft windshield. Advocates say that's a small price to pay for the alternative.

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