the gear manually and then turned on the battery switch
to confirm the gear indications. By the time he turned
final, the smoke was “very heavy and thick,” but the
pilot made a successful landing and taxied to his hangar.
When the pilot exited the aircraft he “was shocked to see
billowing clouds of black and gray acrid smoke.”
Investigators found extensive fire damage to the
aft fuselage in the baggage compartment. The wiring
harness, auxiliary battery contactor, and battery box were
damaged. Battery damage included charring and holes on
one side and partially melted vent caps. Wiring forward of
the baggage compartment also suffered fire damage.
The Lancair IV had developed a serious problem, and
the pilot was lucky to make it back in one piece. Despite
the fact that he extended the gear and landed safely, the
decision to go around was flawed. The maneuver put the
pilot, his passenger, and others on the ground at serious
risk. A better option would have been to complete the
gear-up landing and then quickly exit the aircraft.
Sometimes the source of the fire is the cargo rather than
the aircraft systems themselves. Consider the pilot of a
Cessna T182T who was transporting a gas-powered weed
trimmer in the rear passenger seat. Touching down in
Munising, Michigan, the pilot suddenly smelled a strong
gasoline odor. The trimmer had fallen off the seat, and a
fire quickly broke out. According to the report, the pilot
had been charging his cell phone in the rear seat area,
and this was likely the ignition source for spilled fuel from
the trimmer. The smoke was so bad that the pilot pulled
the mixture to idle cutoff and jumped out of the aircraft,
which was quickly consumed by fire. Fortunately the pilot
was uninjured. The National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB) determined the probable cause(s) of the accident
to be the inadequate preflight planning/preparation by
the pilot to carry a hazardous material aboard an airplane
that resulted in a fire during an after-landing taxi. We can
only imagine what could have happened had the trimmer
fallen in flight.
Restrictions against the carriage of hazardous materials
aboard commercial aircraft are designed to avoid just such
catastrophes, and even when they don’t strictly pertain
to our flying, it makes sense to heed the warnings. Even
something as innocuous as the contacts of a 9-volt battery
shorting against the zipper of a duffel bag has resulted in
a cargo fire aboard an aircraft.
Emergency and gear-up landings often result in fires that can
quickly consume the aircraft. The friction of metal against
the runway can easily ignite fuel spilled from a ruptured
fuel tank or other damaged fuel system components.
Such may have been the case for the pilot of a Piper
PA-24-250 Comanche landing at Pine Bluff, Arkansas,
in August 2008. According to the NTSB report, the pilot
confirmed the gear was down and locked, but the nose
gear collapsed after touchdown and the aircraft skidded to
a stop. Exiting the aircraft, he heard a “pop” as fire erupted
from beneath the aircraft. Flames quickly engulfed the
airplane, gutting the cockpit and cabin. The reason for the
gear failure was not determined.
Closing fuel shut-off valves can prevent such fires
in some cases, thus minimizing the damage and risk to
passengers. The report doesn’t reveal whether or not the
fuel shut-off valve had been secured, but the prompt exit
was critical to survival.
A Bad Brake
Even aircraft brakes can generate enough heat to ignite
a fire. The student pilot of a Cirrus SR20 learned that
lesson firsthand when he landed at Williston Municipal
Airport (X60) in Williston, Florida, planning to make
three takeoffs and landings. He taxied to Runway 23
for departure, but aborted the takeoff because the door
wasn’t securely closed. On the second takeoff attempt, he
aborted for the same reason, but in the process he found
the brakes weren’t functioning properly. He turned off
Runway 23 and rolled to a stop on an intersecting runway.
Even something as innocuous as the
contacts of a 9-volt battery shorting
against the zipper of a duffel bag has
resulted in a cargo fire aboard an aircraft.
The pilot saw smoke coming up from beneath the
wings, so he secured the fuel and avionics master, then
grabbed the extinguisher and jumped out. Neither the
pilot nor quickly arriving airport personnel were able to
put out the fire. Fortunately, the fire department arrived
shortly and extinguished the blaze.
The damage was extensive, destroying the right main
gear completely. According to the report, “The fire burned
through the bottom of the fuselage, and continued up the
right side of the cabin behind the wing. The lower surface
of the right wing incurred thermal damage. The left main
landing gear was also thermally damaged on top of the
wheel pant assembly.”
Aircraft fires are a serious and frightening event. By
understanding the risks and following proper procedures,
we can avoid the worst of the heat.
Robert N. Rossier has been flying for more than 30 years
and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot,
chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.