Never Again

Smoke in the cabin

August 1, 2001

I own (and fly as often as I can) a 1968 Piper Cherokee 180D. It's an aircraft that gives me a great deal of pleasure, and it has always behaved very well. CFXCO has been at the same tiedown at Oshawa Airport in Ontario, Canada, since 1978 when a previous partner and I moved it from Buttonville. I try to keep the aircraft busy all year. Many times in the dead of winter, I'll spend well over an hour shoveling snow from in front of the wheels; brushing snow off the wings and tail; doing a preflight inspection; and all the while waiting for my homebuilt engine heater to do its job of warming up the oil and the Lycoming engine — in order to get off the ground and enjoy the winter performance that provides a brisk takeoff and a great rate of climb.

But this story I'll tell you now was at the opposite end of the calendar. It happened in the summer a few years ago.

I hadn't been flying for about a week, and I needed to fly over eastern Toronto to check out a couple of locations that a friend wanted me to see. The winds were light that day and Runway 12 was in use. After doing my preflight and starting up the engine, I got a taxi clearance to Runway 4 to do an engine runup, and then to hold short of Runway 12 and contact the tower for departure. I asked the tower controller to backtrack and take off with a left turn- out. The clearance came without delay, and I proceeded to backtaxi and take off from Runway 12. It was a bright, clear day; the takeoff roll was quite normal and I commenced the climbout soon after.

At about 200 feet off the ground, all hell broke loose. Instantly — almost explosively — the cabin was filled with black smoke. I have a press-to-talk switch for the radios mounted on the yoke at my left hand. With no delay, I called the tower and said I had thick black smoke in the cabin and needed to land immediately on the nearest available runway.

While talking with the tower, I continued straight ahead since the smoke was thick enough to block my view ahead and to the sides out the windows. In fact, it was thick enough in front of my face that I couldn't even see the instrument panel clearly. But also while talking with the tower, I reached across with my right hand and opened the storm window. The Cherokee has a small window about five by seven inches in size, located at the front bottom corner of the main window on the left side. As soon as the storm window was open, it began to draw out the smoke. Things then started to clear up quickly as far as visibility was concerned. But it still didn't clear up the question as to whether there was a fire on board and, if so, where and how large it was. I told the tower that I would maintain my altitude of about 200 feet above ground and make a continuous medium turn to the left for 260 degrees to land on Runway 22. The tower cleared me to do that and advised other aircraft in the area to remain clear while they dealt with this emergency.

I approached and landed on Runway 22. The tower asked that I taxi to the end, turn left onto the taxiway clear of the runway, and shut down the engine. As I stopped the aircraft, an emergency vehicle and the airport manager's car were approaching from the opposite direction. I shut down the engine and quickly climbed out of the aircraft. Two men with fire extinguishers jumped off the emergency truck and approached the airplane, ready to deal with fire if there was one.

Rob McKnight, the maintenance supervisor of the Oshawa Flying Club, had also been alerted and came out with a tractor to tow my airplane into the hangar area when it was clear to do so.

Up to that time, none of us knew if there was a fire burning somewhere in the aircraft. It turned out there wasn't. But we still didn't know what had caused the explosive cloud of dense black smoke to fill the cabin. What we did know was that the entire cabin interior was covered with black soot. There was also a strong odor that said electrical fire. After a quick survey to determine that it was safe to move the aircraft, McKnight hooked up a towbar to the nosewheel gear and towed the airplane to the apron between the hangars. He then started a closer examination to see if he could find the source of the problem.

While using a flashlight to look down into the aft fuselage behind the luggage compartment, he located the source. The antenna cable from the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) antenna located on top of the fuselage had come adrift and its lower end had made contact with an exposed battery terminal. That had caused a dead short. The full amperage of the battery then caused the cable to heat red hot in an instant. This burned off all the insulation, generated all the smoke, and gave rise to all the black soot that quite literally blasted forward to the front of the cabin.

Now for the rest of the story.

Canadian regulations dictate that the ELT must be removed and sent or taken to a certified shop for its annual inspection. I always took mine to Pointer Avionics out near Pearson Airport (Toronto International). I had done so and it was ready to be reinstalled.

Then I removed it from the aircraft, I had tied off the antenna cable so it wouldn't wave about in the rear fuselage. On the day of the incident, I got to the airport and then realized that I hadn't brought the ELT with me. But no matter, in Canada it's legal to fly locally with no ELT and I was only going for a local flight.

Unfortunately, my tie-off arrangement for the cable was not secure enough against the rumbling vibration that is part of any takeoff. The cable sprang loose. And even though it had several cubic feet of clear air to wave around in, it chose to touch its bare end to the exposed battery terminal. Seems to me I remember an old story that starts, "For want of a nail, a shoe was lost." Since then, whenever the ELT is out for its inspection trip, the cable is tied off with absolute security. And even though there will likely never be another occasion when something like a loose cable gets anywhere near the battery, I still asked McKnight to install rubber boots on the battery terminals so nothing could touch them accidentally.

I was quite pleased with myself when I realized later that I had remained very cool and did all the right things at the time. As for instinct, I've read hundreds of times that the first thing to do in an emergency, and the most important, is to fly the airplane. Perhaps that's where the early training and the instinct come into play, because if you don't fly the airplane while trying to deal with the other items, you can very quickly get onto the back side of the emergency curve.

My aircraft still soldiers on and she's still a reliable, fine aircraft, even though in July she was 33 years old. Come to think of it, she's nearly as old as I am.... OK, OK, if you insist on truth in journalism, I was actually 80 in April. But I still get to fly about 75 to 100 hours a year on average.

Lou Wise, AOPA 1018123, of Don Mills, Ontario, Canada, is an aerial photographer who flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.

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