Engine Fire in Flight
THOMAS P. TURNER, ATP, CFII, MEI
Author’s note: The following information is taught to all pilots during their primary training. In addition, each Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) addresses this topic, as well as the FAA Policy Handbook1.
Engine fire in flight. It’s one of the most frightening emergency scenarios. It rarely happens—but if it does, you need to know exactly what to do, and how to do it.
There is little in the engine compartment that will burn except the contents of fuel and oil lines. If a fire goes unchecked, however, it may burn through engine or even structural components, making matters far, far worse. Engine fires have been known to burn through firewalls, letting flames enter the cockpit of single-engine airplanes and even burn through wing spars in twin-engine airplanes.
Regardless of the size of the fire, smoke and hazardous gases can enter the cabin in single-engine airplanes and pressurized twins.
The Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) for most types of aircraft contains a simple but critical checklist for limiting the damage and avoiding the hazards of an engine failure in flight. With variations for the specific aircraft –check the manual for each type you fly—the Engine Fire in Flight checklist tells us to:
- Stop the smoke. This could be shutting off the heater, closing a firewall shutoff, or pulling a pressurization cutoff control, to prevent or limit contamination of cabin air.
- Fuel selector: OFF. This prevents additional fuel from entering the engine compartment; cutting off most of the combustible fluid (you can’t do anything about the oil).
- Mixture: OFF. This completes the fuel cutoff steps.
- Cabin: Ventilate. Open windows, crack open doors, whatever is needed to get toxic and choking smoke out of the airplane.
Most airplane POHs call for immediate shutdown of the engine at the first sign of an engine fire. Others have different recommendations—advising to fly the burning airplane to a point from which landing is assured, and only then shutting off the engine—or they may have no Engine Fire in Flight checklist at all.
You could probably debate the merits of shutting the engine down immediately upon detecting an engine fire in flight versus flying with a burning engine using whatever power you have remaining until you’re within gliding range of a runway or a landing field. Me, I’m not too keen on keeping an engine fire alive in flight, and would rather shut it off now and then worry about precisely where I’ll land…just as if handed an engine failure in flight. You may think otherwise.
The key is to think about these things now, in a comfortable chair at home or at the office, and decide what you’ll do before you have to make a choice under the extreme stress of an engine fire in your airplane in flight.
If the fire goes out, you have initiated a total engine failure in flight condition. Perform the Glide and Landing without Power procedures in single-engine airplanes, or the Engine Securing and Single-Engine Approach and Landing procedures in twins. Each of these procedures has short memory steps of their own.
To be ready if an engine fire happens to you I suggest this exercise:
- Sit in your airplane on the ground.
- Do not start the engine, but put all controls in their normal inflight positions: throttle forward, propeller control forward, mixture forward, battery and alternator switches on, fuel selector on one of the tanks. Caution: Do not move the gear handle in retractable gear airplanes.
- From memory, complete the Engine Fire in Flight checklist steps. Actually move the controls, shutting off the fuel, pulling the mixture control, etc.
- When you’re complete, pull out the POH and consult the checklist. See if you’ve completed all memory items of the Engine Fire in Flight checklist. Score your performance.
- Reset the controls and practice the procedure two or three more times or until you have it memorized.
- Use the Shutdown/Securing checklist to secure the airplane at the end of your practice.
- Repeat the exercise in a month to see if you remember all the steps, and then every few months for as long as you fly the aircraft.
An engine fire in flight is one of the scariest and most dangerous scenarios you face as a pilot. It’s very unlikely to occur. But you have to be ready to act correctly without having to think about it if it does.
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Holder of an ATP certificate with instructor, CFII and MEI ratings and a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety, 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year, 2015 Inductee into the NAFI Hall of Fame and 2008 FAA Central Region CFI of the Year, three-time Master CFI Thomas P. Turner has been Lead Instructor for Bonanza pilot training program at the Beechcraft factory; production test pilot for engine modifications; aviation insurance underwriter; corporate pilot and safety expert; Captain in the United States Air Force; and contract course developer for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He now directs the education and safety arm of a 9000-member pilots’ organization. With over 4300 hours logged, including more than 2600 as an instructor, Tom writes, lectures and instructs extensively from his home at THE AIR CAPITAL--Wichita, Kansas. Subscribe to Tom’s free FLYING LESSONS Weekly e-newsletter at http://mastery-flight-training.com/.
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