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Smoke in the Cockpit!

By Ben Zwebner
July 13, 2009

Ben Zwebner offers a first had account of an in-flight emergency he had recently, and the emergency landing at DCA that followed.

At roughly 6:10AM on 13 May 2009, I, Ben Zwebner, departed Montgomery County Airpark (KGAI) in a Cessna 182, with a Photographer (Jim Johnson) and a law enforcment officer (John Jimson) towards the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ).

We entered the FRZ in accordance with waiver --- --- ------ for a photo mission at 7,500 feet MSL.

Roughly at 8:54AM, at 7,500 feet MSL and roughly 2NM from the DCA VOR, I smelled smoke in the cockpit and a moment later I observed the smoke pouring out of the Com 2 (the lower of the two Com radios). It then started to come through around the Com 1, LORAN unit and the Audio Panel. At that point I noticed that the Com 2 display was out.

Fearing the spread of the fire, I started to turn off all un-essential electronic equipment. I first turned off the Com 2 unit the the LORAN unit. I continued to shut down all of the lights on the aircraft and declared "May-Day" to Potomac Approach. According to the DCA airport ops, the May-Day call was made at 8:55AM. After I shut down the lights the smoke ceased. I instructed the front seat passenger, Jim, to prepare the fire extinguisher and be ready to use it. I pressed my hand to the Com radios and the circuit breakers and noticed that they were warmer than usual.

Potomac Approach acknowleged the emergency and asked for my intentions. I requested to land at the closest airport, which was Reagan National (KDCA). I was initially cleared staight in for runway 15 but due to my excess in altitude I informed the controller that I was going to spiral over the field and enter a left downwind to runway 15. While I was over the field I received a hand off to DCA tower and I was cleared to land on runway 19 if I chose fit. I declined and continued my approach to runway 15. Winds at the time were reported as calm. When I entered the downwind leg I observed a small amount of smoke from the radio stack.

After landing we cleared the runway at taxiway M and were met by emergency personnel. At that time I noticed that the Strobe Lights Circuit breaker was shorted. I shut down the engine, evacuated the passengers and assisted the fire and rescue crew in determining that the fire was indeed out and that there was no threat for a relight. After that I taxied the aircraft to the Signature ramp at Reagan Airport.

Click for large version
Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Brett Holt

So thats the official, dry report... now what do I really think?

It happend EXTREAMLY fast. from the moment I smelled smoke until the moment I was on the ground was MAYBE 6 minutes tops.

The first thing that popped in my mind when I saw the smoke was: "OH, look at that! Thats NOT good!"
It was never a doubt that it was an electrical fire. I used to be a volunteer fire fighter when I was younger and I recognized the smell of burning wires and plastics.

When you have an electrical fire, you are supposed to shut down the master switch, but I decided not to. Here's why:
I was flying inside the Washington DC FRZ. This is a VERY delicate area. It requires two way radio communications, transponders and printed waivers and background checks before you can fly in the area. My location at the time was 2 miles west of DCA so in essance, I was also in the airspace of a very busy BRAVO. So to shut down the transponder and lose all radio contact would be unwise and as far as I am concerned, unsafe. So after i shut down the lights and saw that the smoke stopped, I elected to keep one Com radio working and my transponder. All other electrical devices were shut down.

From the moment I noticed the smoke until the moment I declared MAYDAY was maybe 45-60 seconds.

I started a very steep descent from 7500 feet to the deck. There was still a small amount of smoke coming from the radios and I didnt want to wait and see if it would light again. As I descended over the field, I was offered to land on runway 19, but I declined because that would bring me a bit too close for comfort to the washington Monument and P-56, the national Mall (yes I know in an emergency I can deviate from all that, but I was already committed to rwy 15 and I have it instilled in my blood that I DO NOT ENTER P-56).

As I entered the left downwind I saw an ERJ-195 going around from 19 as I crossed its final approach path. I was High and I was fast from my descent and that darn 182 just didnt wanna slow down. On final I was still high and fast. All of a sudden over the radio I heard the voice of the captain from the CRJ that was holding short of 15: "Side Slip her in, you can make it."

He was right and I entered into a side slip and I made the runway. It must have been the ugliest landing in my whole career. Three kangaroos (i was still too fast after the slip). I cleared the runway and all was well. The danger was gone and with the fire fighters and I made sure that the passengers were taken care of and then i helped take off the cowling of the engine just to make sure that the engine was not the cause of the fire. After about 20 minutes on the taxiway, We closed the plane up and taxiied her to the FBO where I was questioned by the TSA, the airport Police, the airport manager and then the FAA.

They were all laughing because I was the first light cessna to land in DCA since Sep. 11th 2001.

And that's it. I hope nobody ever has to face a situation like this, but if you do, just remember to think outside the box - each situation is unique.

Click for large version
Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Adam Wright

Written by
Ben Zwebner

Ben Zwebner is a Commercial Pilot and CFI who has been flying since 2004. He is based out of Montgomery County Airpark in Maryland, and does his own freelance instructing through his website, http://www.learntoflytoday.net.

18 User Comments:
Username: Bzwebner [User Info]
Posted 2009-07-13 21:29:50 and read 32768 times.

For those who were wondering what went wrong, it was a short in the Com 2 radio.

Username: Aviateur [User Info]
Posted 2009-07-16 19:03:26 and read 32768 times.

Ben, you done stole the name of my own emergency landing story!

Smoke In the Cockpit. A true story of Danger and Hilarity, Part 1 http://www.salon.com/tech/col/smith/2008/06/06/askthepilot280/

Smoke in the Cockpit. A true story of Danger and Hilarity, Part 2 http://www.salon.com/tech/col/smith/2008/06/13/askthepilot281/


Username: Jpc11 [User Info]
Posted 2009-07-22 10:27:05 and read 32768 times.

nice article

Username: Matt911 [User Info]
Posted 2009-08-09 06:45:22 and read 32768 times.

that is crazy.

Username: HAWK21M [User Info]
Posted 2009-08-13 08:22:36 and read 32768 times.

Nice one Ben.Very Informative.Glad you made it.

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-08-31 22:18:13 and read 32768 times.

nice article!!! so good!!

Username: Gregcarioca [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-08 11:25:36 and read 32768 times.


Username: Brandi747 [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-11 08:07:53 and read 32768 times.

Wow! I wish I could have been there with you...of course I only say this becuase I know the outcome was a good one;)

Username: Josetomas767 [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-26 17:48:12 and read 32768 times.

nice that ben that demostrated that you have a very good future like a comercial pilot

Username: Femosticap [User Info]
Posted 2009-10-13 04:04:36 and read 32768 times.

thank God; your'e safe! i didnt know there's so much unity b/w pilots! :)

Username: Zerocool003 [User Info]
Posted 2010-01-01 09:23:43 and read 32768 times.

Nice ! Very detailed.

Username: Richnasser [User Info]
Posted 2010-01-04 11:10:30 and read 32768 times.

Awesome story and great CRMing too! BTW, did you have flaps available? if so, what where the settings and when did you deploy, if at all?

Congrats on the save!


Username: Sturmovik [User Info]
Posted 2010-01-25 05:56:20 and read 32768 times.

nice to know some of the things that go through a pilots head in an emergency.. this coming from a human factors guy :D

Username: Hugoandres1984 [User Info]
Posted 2010-01-28 09:53:39 and read 32768 times.

Very nice. Good decision. Any time you´ve got smoke on the airplane land as soon as posible. In a big airplane The Electrical Smoke Emergency is one of the hardest one because if you can not find the smoke origins you have to make an emergency landing or ditching in case that the nearest airport is too far. In case of smoke in cabin at 10000feet you despresurize the airplane, disconect slice bars and open the tailcone door (DC9,MD80) to make a venturi effect to remove the smoke but if it is uncontrolable you will make a ditching in case you can not maked to the nearest airport

Username: Bzwebner [User Info]
Posted 2010-02-16 07:13:41 and read 32768 times.

I would like to thank you all for your kind words!

@ Richnasser:
I did have flaps available and I remember deploying ten degrees when I entered downwind for 15, but I also remember that I was too fast to deploy the rest and I dont recall when I deployed the rest but I did touch down with full flaps. If I reply the situation in my mind, knowing myself I would have deployed them right after the slip.

Username: Matt911 [User Info]
Posted 2010-02-23 13:38:45 and read 32768 times.

G00d j0b

Username: Ayaz [User Info]
Posted 2010-07-16 02:17:14 and read 32768 times.

good one

Username: Johnjoel [User Info]
Posted 2011-04-02 08:10:16 and read 32768 times.

excellent job

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