I’m a pilot and no one calls me Smokeboy

This is a journal entry from 11-December-1996. I hope, by now, the parental statute of limitations has expired …

WELL … it’s 1630 and I’m back from my solo x-country but without the plane. 45 minutes into my flight to Alice Intl. via Corpus Christi, I started to smell smoke. It was like burning electrical wire and insulation. Within 15 seconds, smoke was visible through the instrument panel and then a balloon puff of black smoke wafted out from under the panel followed by a lesser amount of gray/white smoke. The engine gauges were out.

I immediately shut down all electrical (turned off the Master switch). While my ground school has taught me the engine does not require the electrical system to stay running, there was a moment of surprise followed by relief. I then did my best to clear the smoke through the vents. I turned all the switches off and then brought the master back followed by tentatively turning one of the radios back on. The smoke didn’t continue so I called the last radio contact, Valley Departure, and announced the situation. “valley departure, Cameron 11. I have an situation – an electrical fire with smoke in the cabin”. “Are you declaring an emergency?”. What seemed like a long pause but likely a fraction of a second, “yes”. They requested intentions. I indicated my intent to attempt a landing at Port Mansfield, a small narrow single uncontrolled runway. Departure requested aircraft identification, number of person on board, aircraft colors. They then gave me a vector to the airport, approximately 360 and 2 miles. I had the strip in sight and they approved a frequency change so I could announce intent to any local traffic.

I had a go-a-round as I realized I would have a strong crosswind landing, in excess of anything I had attempted before and the the Tomahawke wanted to float on the landing. (I later realized that it was in excess of the aircraft limit of 15kts.) It didn’t add any margin of error that the runway was 3200ft and only 40ft wide oriented 12-30 and the winds were at about 200/15G18KTS. I had a little bit of bounce but I kept in on the runway and brought it to a stop.

After taxiing to a park space, I shut down and contacted SWFTS. They were already aware of the situation and had dispatched someone to get me. Within 5 minutes, two sheriff, state, local, an unmarked, and EMT were on the scene with fire enroute. They cancelled fire and ambulance. I gave a statement to the sheriff and shortly there after, the area had cleared out. One of the EMTs, about 38, raggy haired, bushy beard man wearing sandals (a nice man, pleasant helpful ‘local’ kind of guy), chatted for a few minutes and then gave me a ride up to a local store so I could get a soda. I then called FSS to close my flight plan. I had already called SWFTS and asked that they contact tower and advise that I was on the ground. In about 15 minutes after returning to the plane, I saw an aircraft overhead. It did the same change of approach I had, deciding on runway 12.

After landing, out stepped my instructor, Brad – a chief flight instructor, and Eddie – one of the mechanics. Brad’s comments were of surprise that I put it down on the runway and managed to keep it on the asphalt. He also was surprised by the amount of crosswind I held. Adam was skeptical about the smoke until Eddie opened the aircraft and Adam smelled smoke from the tail area. Everyone debated the problem and Eddie finally found that the panel light switch had burned, along with the circuit breaker and the under voltage switch, then the voltage regulator and finally the alternator. We couldn’t get the plane restarted so after contacting SWFTS maintenance, they sent up another mechanic with parts. Brad and I took off with the Warrior for Brownsville.

On the way back, Brad let me fly and had me do some interesting maneuvers. He had me fly heading and altitude with only the rudder and throttle. I had to maintain altitude and vary heading. It was a good exercise. All too soon we were back at KBRO.

As I am writing this, I can still smell the electrical smoke; it’s in my clothing. There were a bunch of funny moments. Shortly before takeoff, Adam instructed me that if I landed at any other airport, I had to inform him, since I was only endorsed for the ones on my flight plan and T31. Also, he said I should never allow smoking in an aircraft. When I got back, dispatch was calling me Smokeboy. My name was already changed on the dispatch board. They had made a magnet namecard (usually reserved for the instructors).

It’s now 17:50 and I’m finally starting to wind down. A slight head ache is setting in and I’m expecting to feel completely wiped within an hour. Adam wants a night flight but I’m feeling that by the time we’re ready to fly, I won’t be in any shape for it.

I won’t be able to write much about it but I wanted to note that it seems somehow strange, bizarre, and ironic that I am at flight school and I am watching a series on “the learning channel” called “Survival in the Sky”, all about flight accidents – pilot error, equipment failure, and weather. Imagine, watching a series on so many horrific accidents associated with a skill in which you are being trained. A little dimented wouldn’t you say …

One Comment

  1. Luke&chloe says:

    Sometime I will have to tell you the story of RTB with a student pilot and flying through a horizontal winds hear on short final. Scariest landing every on dry land.