Crews should follow company approved emergency procedures and manufacturers guidance regarding the conduct of the flight, management of aircraft systems, identification of the source of a suspected fire, and fire fighting.
This article considers some airmanship aspects that are applicable to all aircraft and situations.
At the first indication, or suspicion, of smoke and fumes, or a fire within the aircraft, the flight crew should don smoke goggles and oxygen masks. Goggles and masks need to fit tightly and 100% Oxygen with overpressure (100% Emerg) selected to minimise any ingress of smoke and fumes into the mask. It is important that the whole crew is completely familiar with operating both the oxygen and intercom functions of their protective equipment.
Unless smoke and fumes are clearly present on the flight deck, the captain may elect, in order to maintain communication with the cabin crew, to delay fitting his own mask until the co-pilot has donned his protective equipment and is in a position to take control of the aircraft.
Consider LANDing AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
Plan for Immediate Descent and Landing
Many smoke and fire warnings turn out to be spurious. Passengers and cabin crew reporting unusual smells and fumes, may be inclined to downplay the situation for fear of embarrassment if they are wrong. Fire/smoke warnings and reports of smoke or fumes should be taken seriously until there is POSITIVE confirmation that the warnings are false. If it is a real fire, then a flight crew may not have very long to deal with the situation - time is critical.
The crew should commence descent immediately and begin planning for an emergency landing. An emergency should be declared and ATC told that the aircraft is in descent. In a high traffic area, when there may be a number of aircraft in close proximity, it would be a good idea to declare the emergency and ask for descent and vectors to the closest airfield before commencing descent. However, if that clearance is not immediately forthcoming, descend without it. Putting an aircraft on the ground within 15 minutes of a fire being detected is a challenge if you are at cruising altitude in a modern passenger jet - for example, descent at maximum speed and full drag will still take more than 5 minutes from cruise altitude to sea-level in an A320 - so any delay in commencing descent may prove fatal.
Over western Europe or the eastern seaboard of the USA, there are numerous airfields, both active and disused, that are suitable for an emergency landing. The same is not the case for an aircraft over the open oceans or over sparsely populated land regions such as northern Canada or eastern Russia. In these areas it is good practice to make use of all resources so that the crew always know where the nearest suitable airfield is and can turn directly on track in the event of an emergency. Crews with high situational awareness (SA) will have prepared and know HOW to fly an approach at an unfamiliar airfield with unusual altimetry and procedures in the event of an emergency. Workload will be high and visibility possibly degraded so preparation at times of low workload may be vital. If it is necessary to expedite the enroute phase to an emergency airfield, consider adjusting altitude to achieve the maximum groundspeed. If there is quantifiable evidence of an uncontrolled fire, then there is a real possibility of loss of control in the short term, and therefore an off-field landing or ditching may be the only way of surviving the experience.
Fight the Fire
While the requirement is to land the aircraft as soon as possible, the crew need to do all that they can to isolate and control the fire. The FAA Advisory Circular 120-80A (see Further Reading) uses the phrase “aggressively pursue” to describe the urgency with which cabin crew need to locate the source of the fire and attack it using all available resources, which may include deadheading crew members and passengers. Crews should follow Company procedures for fighting an in-flight fire.
Accident & Serious Incident Reports
Flight Safety Foundation
Royal Aeronautical Society
- Smoke, fire and fumes in transport aircraft, past history, current risks and recommended mitigations - Part 1:References, Fifth Ed., 2018, Royal Aeronautical Society.
- Smoke, fire and fumes in transport aircraft, past history, current risks and recommended mitigations - Part 2:Training, Second Ed., 2018, Royal Aeronautical Society.
Australian Transportation Safety Board Australian Transportation Safety Board reports:
- Reflections on the Decision to Ditch a Large Transport Aircraft - an account by the aircraft captain and pilot of a RAF Nimrod which ditched into the North Sea following an engine fire which spread to the wing; edited version of RAF leadership: Able to handle ambiguity by Gp Capt John Jupp, RAF Magazine ‘Spirit of the Air’ Vol. 2 No. 3, 2007