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Smoke in the Cockpit

July 23rd, 2013 No comments

By James F. Riordan  Copyright 2013

In mid-November of 1984,when we were living in San Jose, CA., my wife asked me if we could fly up to see her brother and his wife in Santa Rosa for a weekend with them in their new home.

Sonoma County airport (STS) http://www.sonomacountyairport.org/ was close enough to their new home so her brother  could easily pick us up. We headed out to the Rental Club, at Reid Hillview (RHV) airport, where we had a membership at the time, expecting to rent a Mooney or Piper Archer as usual and somebody had already beat us to them. About all that was left was this well-worn Beechcraft “N67216” Skipper. An underpowered, slow, Tee-tail “nose dragger” that had definitely seen better days, as demonstrated by the condition of the interior , but it was all that was left, so we took it.

Beechcraft “Skipper”

I noted the time of “wheels up” and set the radios.  After clearance we headed to (STS) and began yawning.  . . .Yep, it was THAT slow.

Exactly 17 minutes into the flight Lynn casually said, “I smell smoke, do you smell that?, I replied , “No, I don’t smell smoke”.  I checked the amp meter and I was still charging well, with voltage in the green.

I told Lynn, “This is a worn old beast so just tell me if you smell it again.

Sure enough after a few minutes she smelled it again.  This time it smelled stronger to her.  However it was only on her side and I could only smell it if I leaned my head over next to hers and then only a little. About 4 minutes later, Lynn said, “look!”: and pointed to a waft of smoke coming out from under the far right side of the instrument panel, right in front of her right arm.

I began shutting off accessories to see if the smoke would stop. Radios off, avionics off, still the smoke kept coming until it was becoming denser and more putrid. I shut off the master switch and within a few minutes, which seemed liked hours, the smoke slowly subsided until it stopped.  I noted the time again and it was 28 minutes until the smoke had stopped.

For you non flyers, the electronics and battery systems on aircraft are completely separate from the magneto generated power which provides spark for the engine to run.  By this time we had only a few minutes remaining until we were within Sonoma County airport airspace. So, I first set the radio frequencies and then turned on the radios and transponder, avionics and then threw on the master switch.

We landed without incident and could detect no warm spots under the instrument panel.  We locked up the plane, tied her down and Lynn’s brother met us and took us to his home for a well deserved adult beverage. Had a great weekend and returned to the plane on Sunday afternoon for what we hoped would be a safe trip home. After starting the engine and checking the amp and volt meters, all “in the green”, I did an extended run-up on the ground and could feel no warm spots under the instrument panel and had no visible smoke.

The final decision to fly home was based on plenty of daylight left, severe clear weather without a cloud in the sky, and ,well, the knowledge that it was NOT MY airplane.  For those of you who do not fly, that last part means I really did not care if I had to land it “off-field” and then simply call the rental operation and tell ‘em where it was.!  I had plenty of off field, short field, and unimproved runway experience and most importantly it was not affecting the engine operation at all.

After the extended run-up I did my “tower talking” and headed off to Reid Hillview airport and home. Again I noted the exact time of wheels up. All was fine until Lynn said again, “Jim, I smell smoke”. It was exactly 17 minutes from wheels up.  Deja Vu all over again as Yogi Berra once said. I could not smell any smoke and all gauges were in the green.

A few minutes later Lynn calmly said, “its getting worse again” and I leaned over and , Yup, it was getting stronger. I did another gauge scan and all was well . . . then the smoke started out from under Lynns right side of the instrument panel again. I tried once again to narrow down the source and could find no obvious cause. This time the smoke became thicker faster and I shut off all the electrical equipment, radios and master switch and just as before, the smoke diminished and then stopped. It was 24 minutes after wheels up which meant the insulation on whatever the problem was , was getting more serious.

We avoided controlled airspace, descended our flight path and then turned everything back on when I had to talk to Reid Hillview Tower. I was given clearance to land, we had no more smoke and we were on the ground in about 15 minutes.

I pulled out the log books and grounded the aircraft with an extensive description of the problems and an admonishment to the A&P  (Airframe and Power plant mechanic) who would be investigating my “squawks”  to specifically NOT just taxi to the run-up  area and let the engine idle for 17 to 25 minutes, I told the mechanic it must be FLOWN for a minimum of 25 minutes, landed, cooled down and re-flown for the same time and then immediately inspected under the instrument panel for any raw or blackened/melted wires.

My instructions took up almost an entire log book page.

Mechanics hate it when pilots tell them what to do, because most mechanics think that most pilots are mechanically illiterate and in fact some are. Without bragging, I am one who is not. I have built race engines, built five experimental aircraft, all of which I personally maintained and still do maintain. I understand engines , wiring, avionics and airframe building and have owned a sheet metal and machine shop. I took the time to write all this out so the mechanic would take all the steps necessary to make the plane airworthy again.

Jump forward to about 10 pm the next evening. a friend of mine named Bob Jenkins calls me up and relays this story.  “Hey Jim, I went to take a friend from work flying tonight .  He had never flown in a small plane so we went over to Reid Hillview and the only rental available was this Beech Skipper, you know that one right?”  I said “Yup” . . .with an eerie feeling of what I was about to hear.

Bob continued, “Well, we took off at dusk” (Oh-Oh) ” and flew down to Morgan Hill to South County Airport” (which is about a twenty minute flight)  . . ” and just about five minutes out from destination I was getting set up for my straight-in landing approach when the inside lights got dim and the cockpit began to fill with smoke.”  He said, “When I clicked the mike key five times to activate the runway lights, the cockpit lights went out, the landing and navigation lights went out and the radio stopped transmitting.”

Note: all over the US, pilots use the microphone “key” to turn on runway lights while transmitting on the landing frequency for the intended airport . . . usually 4 to 8 clicks and all the runway and taxiway lights turn on  along with the VASI ( Visual Approach Slope Indicator)  lights. It is pretty spectacular when folks see this for the first time.

On the other hand, it is no fun when you hit the transmit key the required amount of times and everything remains dark.  That is what happened to Bob. It was a low moonlight night and Bob said, “At least I could see what I thought were the edges of the runway so I started my straight in approach.”

Note:  What he had really seen were long lines of pure white gravel on both sides of the TAXIWAY which were being used to fill in trenched ditches on either side of the taxiway to install the new taxiway outline lights.  The taxiway was actually posted “closed” on the ground but he had no lights to see that.  To make it MUCH worse, in the center length of the taxiway was a large (six ft. tall) mound of dirt running across (perpendicular to)  the taxiway, where they had trenched to connect all the lights running north and south from the center.

Bob said,” The approach went well” and he said “at touchdown I was surprised to feel gravel instead of asphalt but at least I was down and straight”.  He continued, “I know you know that feeling when the wheels are finally firmly planted and you’re saying to yourself, whew, I’m glad we made it.” I agreed that was a great feeling, been there done that, more than once.

Then Bob said , “Well, it was about that time I saw this six foot tall mound of dirt and white gravel dead ahead, with no possible way to stop, so I went to full power, lifted off and, Jim, you know I almost made it. ”  Intrigued, I had to ask “Almost?.  He said, “Yeah, except the nose wheel hit the berm and we went right over on our back sliding backwards and upside down listening to things crunching and cracking until we finally slid to a stop inverted.  The tall ‘T’ tail, stayed intact and it was the only thing that kept us from being hurt badly.  My passenger and I wrestled open the door and we crawled out. My friend had a broken ankle and could not walk unassisted so he put his arm on my shoulder and we hobbled over to the payphone (remember those? ) and called for help.”  When Bob called me he was in the waiting room as his buddy got his ankle in a cast.

I could not believe my ears. That A&P “mechanic” had not followed my mandated procedures and had simply run the plane up for 20 minutes, noted no problems and approved the aircraft to be put back on the flight line. He lost his A&P license over his failure to follow proper procedures resulting in  a potentially fatal crash.

This kind of neglect still happens today at airports all over the US and that is why I recommend that any time a pilot rents an aircraft which has been “squawked”  from a previous flight and then put back on the flight line for rent, the pilot should do his own inspection or more extensive run-up to be sure it is truly safe for further flight.

In my case, my rental days are over.  I have built, worked on, signed off and  flown five of my own experimental aircraft for years now so I know exactly how the aircraft has been operated and maintained.

Fly Safe!