Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot Magazine

After the Smoke

“A little fire in the cockpit really brightens your day.”

The voice in my headset was urgent, “Budd, there’s smoke in the cockpit!”

Even though I was up front in the open cockpit with lots of air moving around, I didn’t have to be told the obvious. In the last couple seconds, the smell that I had first interpreted as extremely hot brakes took on the smell of hot wiring, all of which set my senses on full alert. So, when there was a big flash behind my left elbow followed by billowing smoke, a part of me, over which I had only minimal control, slammed into full emergency mode.

“Eight Papa Bravo has smoke in the cockpit,” I yelled into the mike even as I bent the airplane around to the right. “I’m putting this thing on the ground.”

We had just passed the tower and had barely four hundred feet of altitude. I didn’t bother looking under my elbow. I knew something down there was burning and I was fairly certain that wasn’t a good thing. Bringing my head inside the cockpit to see how bad it was would be a waste of time, so the part of me, that seemed to be running things on autopilot decided I’d just assume the worse and behave accordingly. Fire of any kind in the cockpit is every pilot’s worse nightmare and I was living mine.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in this particular nightmare alone. Rather than having a student in the back seat, I was letting my friend Shaun, an experienced pilot, get his monthly Pitts fix. He had a clear view of the burning wires under the instrument panel and immediately shut the master off. If a green student had been back there, things would have been much worse.

I had yelled into the intercom to shut the master off and, when I had no side tone and couldn’t hear myself, I assumed either my adrenaline level was so high that it was over my ears and interfering with hearing or the fire (or Shaun), had shut the system down. Either way, that was unimportant. My only job was fly the airplane and hope the fire, if there was one, wouldn’t get any worse.

The good news was that the airplane was flying fine and its engine was still singing its snarly little song. Its only problem was smoke swirling around its occupants. An airplane that is still running gives you all sorts of options so I initially decided to suck it into a 60-degree-bank teardrop turn and land downwind. However, as the nose swung around and the runway came into view, it was obvious that wasn’t going to work: there was some kind of Piper thing (my aircraft identification skills had apparently died) rolling out after landing. He was thoughtlessly occupying the very piece of runway I so desperately needed.

By this time the smoke had thinned out and the onboard thinking apparatus (me) was working a little more clearly, so I squinted at final. Good, no one out there. With no one on final, I could fly downwind a little ways and not conflict with traffic. I, however, had zero intention of flying the length of the runway. I wanted down, so I powered back part way and slogged along waiting for the Piper to get out of the way.

I say I was thinking more clearly, but that obviously wasn’t the case because I kept worrying about cutting in front of landing traffic. At no time did I think the tower may be smart enough to realize I had a problem and ask everyone to go around. Here I was at two or three hundred feet, right over the taxiway and literally in their face and my only thought about the tower was, “Boy, is this going to piss ‘em off.”

Other than clearing final, I was totally focused on the Piper on the runway while I tried to calculate how soon he was going to clear. Using him as the pivot point, I made a super tight, 180-degree turning approach with a healthy slip fine-tuning everything so I’d land on the piece of runway he was just about to vacate. Then it looked as if he was about to overshoot his turnoff and I nearly swallowed my gum! The controller must have said some encouraging tower-words like, “Getchurbuttofftherunwaywehaveanemergencyinprogress” because he braked hard and got off just in the nick of time.

We landed without incident and, as we turned off and smartly swung the nose into the tower, they gave us a green light to taxi, just as if we’d practiced it. From that point on, since there were no flames crawling up my left sleeve, all I could think about was getting a hold of the tower and explaining myself. I got them on the phone and the tower super said he’d been standing behind the controller working me and the instant we pitched into a tight turn right over the runway, everyone in the tower said the same four-letter expletive (no, not that one) in unison and started clearing traffic out around us. He couldn’t have been more understanding.

I popped the back off the instrument panel and found a mess of charred wire where my strobe line harness had been. A teeny little wire had chaffed through and fried some very expensive looking stuff. Tomorrow we start fixing it.

When something even as minor as this happens, you constantly rerun it in the theater of your mind while trying to see where you could have done something better: I couldn’t find anything I would have done differently given what I knew at the time. However, in re-thinking it, I realized that not once did I look in the cockpit. I had no idea what my power or airspeed was. All I saw was the nose of the airplane and a white Piper that I wished wasn’t there. Without thinking about it, I did exactly what I harp at my students about and flew the nose attitude, everything else be damned.

This is the fifth (that’s right, fifth, as in five) emergency landing I’ve made this year and it’s getting annoying. Plus, my laundry bills are definitely out of control.