The key thing to understand about an engine fire is that there is very little in the engine compartment that can burn, other than the fuel being fed to the engine and the oil circulating through it. The emergency procedure for an engine fire is easy to remember. It consists of two steps: Shut off fuel (first idle cutoff, then tank selector valve, while leaving the mags on) and land. The concern is to save lives, not the airplane. Of course, some judgment is still needed; you don’t want to shut down the engine where there is no possibility of a survivable landing, but you don’t want to keep it running while you hunt for a place with a Starbucks either.
There are some refinements. For example, if what is burning is oil, signaled by dense black or gray smoke, it is desirable to stop the prop (set coarse pitch, close throttle, slow down) to eliminate oil pressure. If flames are coming from the cowling, a slip can be used to keep them away from the cabin. A high gliding speed and open cowl flaps may “blow the fire out” by leaning remaining fuel or oil vapors to an incombustible mixture.
But the most important thing is to get onto the ground. The same applies to a twin, even though it seems able to keep flying. Once a fire has begun, it is impossible to know what is going on inside a cowling and whether a wing or engine mount has been weakened.
Probably many pilots, after once reading the “Engine Fire” section of the POH, gradually forget it. The Saratoga’s was emphatic: First shut off the fuel supply to the engine. It’s logical. If your house were on fire, would you squirt gasoline on it? Of course, the signs can be ambiguous. Oil dripping on an exhaust pipe or turbocharger can produce a burning odor and copious smoke, without a flame. But in this case there was no ambiguity: They saw flames.
Why didn’t the pilot immediately land?
It’s not hard to put yourself into his place. The Florida Everglades are open, flat and shallow, but not an inviting place to spend the night. He cannot have been unaware of the nearby highway, but it was a Sunday afternoon, when the yearning to get back is at its peak. The home airport was almost in sight, and it had firefighting equipment. The smoke in the cockpit had subsided, giving hope that the worst was over. And then there is the bane of pilots: irrational optimism, the feeling that this cannot happen to me.
It is worth reflecting, parenthetically, on the role of controllers. They appear to most pilots as authority figures. The Miami controller’s first reaction to the pilot’s mayday call was “Are you going to try and make it to Executive Airport?” Compared with the neutral “Say your intentions,” this was a leading question. “Do you intend to make an emergency landing?” would have pointed in a different direction. Perhaps from a generous impulse to provide encouragement, he identified Executive as the nearest airport; it was not, by a factor of two. Later, he said he would “keep” the flight at 3,000 feet; what it really needed to do was get down as quickly as possible. At 1747:02, he told the pilot he was 24 miles to the airport; more than 2½ minutes later, the second controller said he was 25 miles out.
Whatever well-intentioned controllers may say, however, the responsibility ultimately rests with the pilot. It must be painful to decide to crash-land a beloved airplane, especially when hope obscures the grim consequences of not doing so. But an in-flight fire is a terrible thing: It leaves no choice.
This article is based on the NTSB’s report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers’ attention. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.
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