Aftermath: An In-Flight Engine Fire

The pilot of a Piper Saratoga makes the fatal mistake of mishandling an engine fire.

Engine Fire

Engine Fire

On a Sunday afternoon in September 2009, a Piper Saratoga with four aboard was approaching Fort Lauderdale on an IFR flight plan from Gainesville. The Florida weather was fine, with scattered clouds and mild winds. The airplane was at 3,800 feet, on a heading of about 145 degrees, and was being handled by Miami Approach.

Then – “Mayday mayday mayday mayday; 2467Y has a fire in the engine.”

Time 1745:55
MIA – N2467Y Miami, roger, are you going to try and make it to Executive Airport? That's the closest airport to you, sir.
67Y – We're trying. … We got smoke in the cockpit and we're trying to get to the … nearest airport.
MIA – N2767Y [sic] roger, fly heading of 110, proceed direct to Executive Airport. That's the closest airport actually to you.
67Y – 110 on the heading, 67Y.

Time 1746:24
MIA – N67Y the Pahokee airport is actually the closest airport to you. It is 23.93 miles away. Do you want to try and get to Pahokee or do you want to get to Exec?
67Y – We'd like to get to Exec. I think what we did is we, we definitely got, we were able, we have power. I think we've lost one … cylinder or something like that; we can see some fire coming off the nose. The smoke in the cockpit has dissipated. We can maintain altitude, ah, will just have to keep you posted. …

Time 1747:02
MIA – N67Y you wanna still try to make Fort Lauderdale Exec; that is, it is 24 miles away, is that, that's the … do you want to try to continue to Exec, correct?
67Y – We're gonna try and continue to Exec, 67Y.
MIA – N67Y, keep me advised, sir.
67Y – Will do, 67Y.

Time 1747:50
67Y – Ah, we want visual straight in to the runway, 67Y.
MIA – N2467Y, fly heading 110; that'll be vectors straight in to Executive Runway 8 at Executive for visual approach. … N2467Y proceed heading 110; that'll take you direct to Exec for a visual approach Runway 8.
67Y– 110, 67Y, visual eight.
MIA – N2467Y [I'll] keep you at altitude just so you can stay up there. Hopefully if you have another problem you can glide to the airport, but I will keep you at 3,000; advise me if you want to do anything other than that.
67Y – Thank you very much, 67Y.

At this point, the Miami controller gave 67Y a new frequency, so that a Fort Lauderdale approach controller could handle him alone. The pilot came up on the new frequency.

Time 1749:40
FXE – N67Y, I understand you have heading. Like I say we also have Boca. Boca is about the same distance, so whichever one. You look like 12 o'clock and 25 miles for Executive.
67Y – We're getting more smoke in the cockpit; we're thinking we might have to land on runway … ah, Highway 27 here.
FXE – OK, do you have 27? … You said you wanna try and land on Highway 27, sir?
67Y – Yes, yes
FXE – All right 67Y, we have your … can I get the souls on board and fuel?

Time 1750:14
FXE – 67Y, before, can you give me the souls on board, please?

Time 1750:28
FXE – N2467Y, can you give me souls on board?
67Y– We're on fire! We're on fire!

A Florida wildlife conservation officer saw the Saratoga in a steep left bank, diving, trailing black smoke, with flames pouring from the cowling. It crashed at high speed into six feet of water, killing all aboard.

At the time of the mayday call, the Saratoga was about four miles west of Highway 27 — a wide, straight road free of railings and power lines — and flying exactly parallel to it. It was 22 nm from both Clewiston and Pahokee and about 16 nm from Belle Glade State. Fort Lauderdale Executive, which the controller initially told the pilot was the nearest airport, was 34 nm distant. At 1747, when the controller told the pilot that Exec was 24 miles away, it was actually still more than 30 miles away.

The airplane was pulverized, but investigators were able to locate the source of the fire at the number five cylinder — right rear on a Lycoming — and through electron microscopy to identify a fatigue fracture on a fuel line just above that cylinder’s injector. The breaking of the fuel supply line was the primary probable cause. “Also causal,” the report continues, “was the pilot’s failure to immediately secure the engine/perform a forced landing after discovery of the fire, which resulted in the pilot’s loss of control of the airplane.”

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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