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Smoke in the cockpit

January 16, 2013

There aren’t many worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit. It’s only happened to me once, many moons ago. As I was reading the news of the JAL and ANA grounding of their B787 Dreamliners I immediately thought back to the one awful moment that I realized there was smoke in the cockpit.

I’d been warned.

I was a lowly flight instructor in the days after Sept 11, 2001. Flying jobs were next to impossible to find so I was “biding my time” as a flight instructor in Merritt Island, Florida. My flight that fateful day was to do a flight-review with an 80-something year old lady. She was a retired US Navy officer and I’d been told she had a bit of a strong character. Her doctor had told her she shouldn’t be flying any more but she decided to come to our flight school to prove otherwise. I’d never flown with her before but other flight instructors urged me not to sign her logbook ( for a flight review ) if I wasn’t comfortable.

My “student” had her own airplane, an older Cessna 172. She was impatient and went to pre-fly the airplane while I was taking care of some paperwork inside.

It was my own fault.

My student started her airplane and pulled up in front of our flight school office. I jumped in without stopping the engine. In an older Cessna it’s hard to see if the battery is charging once the airplane is running. The generator charge is something that you should check immediately after starting, it’s on the after-start checklist. I wasn’t in the airplane when it was started. I should have stopped and started over but I didn’t.

We took off and were climbing out to the practice area to the West of the airport when I noticed the generator field circuit breaker had tripped. Something I’d been taught long before is that you NEVER NEVER NEVER reset a tripped circuit breaker in flight unless you absolutely need that missing system to avoid a grave and imminent emergency.

So I pushed in the generator field circuit breaker.

To this day I don’t know what made me do that. I think because I didn’t do the entire pre-flight and before-start checklists with my student, I figured that she simply didn’t check the circuit breakers. For whatever reason, I just pushed in that circuit breaker. As soon as I pushed in the circuit breaker I said to myself something along the lines of “What the devil did you do that for?” Maybe I simply blocked out the idea that airplanes do catch on fire because most all of our flights are always routine, most airline pilots fly an entire career without dealing with a serious system emergency. Either way, it was a pull-type circuit breaker so I didn’t worry about it.

For about 20 seconds. That’s when electrical smoke started to fill the cockpit. I reached over to my old friend the generator field circuit breaker and pulled. And pulled. And pulled.


One reason to never push in a popped circuit breaker is that the breaker may weld itself shut when you push it back in. This one did. Smoke kept filling the cockpit. I practically rolled the airplane on its side doing a 180 back to the airport. We were only minutes away from the airport and over nice open fields. When we approached the airport is where I had to make a decision. The last few miles to the airport were devoid of suitable emergency landing sites. I either had to continue or set down in an open field. Our smoke situation wasn’t getting any better but I figured I had some time. We continued to the airport and landed safely. I later learned the airplane was an awful mess of years of neglect and “pilot / owner maintenance”. The generator had been jerry-rigged to basically by-pass the voltage regulator. More RPM meant more voltage in direct correlation.

* * *

I’m sure Boeing will figure the 787 issues out eventually. I’ve done some work with New Product Introduction (NPI) at GE Aircraft Engines and there are always some growing pains. Having said that, there aren’t any worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit.


Flying over the Egyptian desert. Lots of good emergency landing room here…

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