A fire in-flight demands immediate and decisive action. The pilot should be familiar with the procedures outlined to meet this emergency contained in the AFM/POH for the particular airplane. For the purposes of this post, in-flight fires are classified as in-flight engine fires, electrical fires, and cabin fires.

Engine Fire

An in-flight engine compartment fire is usually caused by a failure that allows a flammable substance, such as fuel, oil, or hydraulic fluid, to come in contact with a hot surface. This may be caused by a mechanical failure of the engine itself, an engine-driven accessory, a defective induction or exhaust system, or a broken line. Engine compartment fires may also result from maintenance errors, such as improperly installed/fastened lines and/or fittings resulting in leaks.

Engine compartment fires can be indicated by smoke and/or flames coming from the engine cowling area. They can also be indicated by discoloration, bubbling, and/or melting of the engine cowling skin in cases where flames and/or smoke are not visible to the pilot. By the time a pilot becomes aware of an in-flight engine compartment fire, it usually is well developed. Unless the airplane manufacturer directs otherwise in the AFM/POH, the first step on discovering a fire should be to shut off the fuel supply to the engine by placing the mixture control in the idle cut off position and the fuel selector shutoff valve to the OFF position. The ignition switch should be left ON in order to use up the fuel that remains in the fuel lines and components between the fuel selector/shutoff valve and the engine. This procedure may starve the engine compartment of fuel and cause the fire to die naturally. If the flames are snuffed out, no attempt should be made to restart the engine.

If the engine compartment fire is oil-fed, as evidenced by thick black smoke, as opposed to a fuel-fed fire, which produces bright orange flames, the pilot should consider stopping the propeller rotation by feathering or other means, such as (with constant-speed propellers) placing the pitch control lever to the minimum rpm position and raising the nose to reduce airspeed until the propeller stops rotating. This procedure stops an engine-driven oil (or hydraulic) pump from continuing to pump the flammable fluid that is feeding the fire.

Some light airplane emergency checklists direct the pilot to shut off the electrical master switch. However, the pilot should consider that unless the fire is electrical in nature, or a crash landing is imminent, deactivating the electrical system prevents the use of panel radios for transmitting distress messages and also causes air traffic control (ATC) to lose transponder returns.

Pilots of powerless single-engine airplanes are left with no choice but to make a forced landing. Pilots of twin-engine airplanes may elect to continue the flight to the nearest airport. However, consideration should be given to the possibility that a wing could be seriously impaired and lead to structural failure. Even a brief but intense fire could cause dangerous structural damage. In some cases, the fire could continue to burn under the wing (or engine cowling in the case of a single-engine airplane) out of view of the pilot. Engine compartment fires that appear to have been extinguished have been known to rekindle with changes in airflow pattern and airspeed.

The pilot should be familiar with the airplane’s emergency descent procedures. The pilot should also bear in mind the following:

  • The airplane may be severely structurally damaged to the point that its ability to remain under control could be lost at any moment.
  • The airplane may still be on fire and susceptible to explosion.
  • The airplane is expendable and the only thing that matters is the safety of those on board.

Electrical Fires

The initial indication of an electrical fire is usually the distinct odor of burning insulation. Once an electrical fire is detected, the pilot should attempt to identify the faulty circuit by checking circuit breakers, instruments, avionics, and lights. If the faulty circuit cannot be readily detected and isolated, and flight conditions permit, the battery master switch and alternator/generator switches should be turned off to remove the possible source of the fire. However, any materials that have been ignited may continue to burn.

If electrical power is absolutely essential for the flight, an attempt may be made to identify and isolate the faulty circuit by:

  1. Turning the electrical master switch OFF.
  2. Turning all individual electrical switches OFF.
  3. Turning the master switch back ON.
  4. Selecting electrical switches that were ON before the fire indication one at a time, permitting a short time lapse after each switch is turned on to check for signs of odor, smoke, or sparks.

This procedure, however, has the effect of recreating the original problem. The most prudent course of action is to land as soon as possible.

Cabin Fire

Cabin fires generally result from one of three sources: (1) careless smoking on the part of the pilot and/or passengers; (2) electrical system malfunctions; or (3) heating system malfunctions. A fire in the cabin presents the pilot with two immediate demands: attacking the fire and getting the airplane safely on the ground as quickly as possible. A fire or smoke in the cabin should be controlled by identifying and shutting down the faulty system. In many cases, smoke may be removed from the cabin by opening the cabin air vents. This should be done only after the fire extinguisher (if available) is used. Then the cabin air control can be opened to purge the cabin of both smoke and fumes. If smoke increases in intensity when the cabin air vents are opened, they should be immediately closed. This indicates a possible fire in the heating system, nose compartment baggage area (if so equipped), or that the increase in airflow is feeding the fire.

On pressurized airplanes, the pressurization air system removes smoke from the cabin; however, if the smoke is intense, it may be necessary to either depressurize at altitude, if oxygen is available for all occupants, or execute an emergency descent.

In unpressurized single-engine and light twin-engine airplanes, the pilot can attempt to expel the smoke from the cabin by opening the foul weather windows. These windows should be closed immediately if the fire becomes more intense. If the smoke is severe, the passengers and crew should use oxygen masks if available, and the pilot should initiate an immediate descent. The pilot should also be aware that on some airplanes, lowering the landing gear and/or wing flaps can aggravate a cabin smoke problem.