On September 2nd, 2008 the Pilot in Command (PIC) of a Turbo Cessna 182 (T182T) model aircraft experienced what most people would consider an unbelievable accident/incident.
The pilot flew on a personal business flight from KACB (Bellaire, Michigan) to K5Y7 (Munising, Michigan), from the upper west in lower Michigan to the upper west in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a flight of 101 nautical miles. A flight that would take him across the northern part of Lake Michigan if he flew a direct route. A turbocharged 182 will easily cruise (in the lower altitudes below 10,000 feet MSL) about 145 nautical miles per hour (NMPH) which is just shy of 2.5 NM per minute. A direct flight should have taken about 40 minutes.
Just the pilot and a weed wacker, placed on the back seat, in this four-passenger aircraft. Apparently, everything was normal and routine for the flight until he was touching down and the pilot stated (details are sketchy in the NTSB report) he smelled a strong odor of gasoline and the weed wacker shifted forward to a location between the two front seats. The pilot then stated he pushed the weed wacker back onto the rear passenger seats and a fire started. He landed and was taxing to a parking location when he stated smoke filled the cockpit. The smoke was so bad that he pulled the mixture control to the off position (stopped the flow of fuel to the engine of the aircraft) and applied braking to stop so he could exit the aircraft. He did was not injured. However, the aircraft was destroyed.
A crucial part of his testimony was the fact that he was charging his cell phone on the flight to his destination. We charge cell phones all the time, right? No problems, correct? And, by itself, the act of charging a cell phone is no big deal 99% of the time. But what was near the charging process? The pilot stated he was charging his cell phone where the weed wacker was located.
Hmmm, this accident/incident was in September of 2008 and battery-powered weed whackers did not exist (at least for retail sales), thus it ran on auto fuel. Back to the pilots’ statement – he smelled a strong odor of fuel right before the fire and smoke occurred in the cockpit. A cell phone charger is in the range of 5 volts of electricity, your home is 110 volts, so you might think – no big deal. Five volts is five volts.
All it takes under the right conditions is just a spark, any spark and the right conditions existed at that time and place. The result was a very nice aircraft was destroyed. Thankfully no one was injured or killed. Imagine if that had happened during the flight, say 5,000 ft. Would the pilot have had time to do anything?
A Closer Look
A general rule of thumb for normal descents in General Aviation piston aircraft is to descend at 500 feet per minute. If one did that with a fire aboard from 5,000 feet to sea level, it would take about 10 minutes. In this case, the aircraft was not able to be occupied in two minutes or less. How about doing an emergency descent? If you are able to obtain and keep a 2,000 foot a minute descent, it would still take about two and one-half minutes to get to sea level from 5,000 ft. Would you still be able to control the aircraft? Would you be conscious? All unknowns, and thankfully in the General Aviation database of accidents, this indeed is rare.
The start of the fire and exit of the pilot from the aircraft was rapid, he had just landed and was taxing but he never made it to a parking location. I am guessing he had less than two minutes or he would have died from smoke inhalation, lack of oxygen and or possibly have burned to death.
The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) report stated this: “The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The inadequate preflight planning/preparation by the pilot to carry a hazardous material aboard an airplane that resulted in a fire during an after-landing taxi.”
Many would not have given it a second thought, a short flight with something so seemingly harmless (a weed wacker that is not running). But preflight consideration was not given to the transport of the hazardous material inside the fuel tank of the weed wacker – gasoline. In this case the almost deadly combination of electricity and fumes destroyed his aircraft.
May I suggest you review the Pilot’s Airplane Handbook? Chapter 17 Emergency Procedures. The FAA in the past 15 years has vastly improved the pilot knowledge publications that they produce and this book is an example of their efforts. The book is free to download or to view online and it can be found at this link. Also, the AOPA has created a page where they compile information about the transport of hazardous materials in aircraft, including private aircraft. A valuable resource for pilots (click here).