Smoke In The Cockpit

One of my lessons was a little different. I had gone out to do my first dual cross country, which we were having a tough time getting in due to weather. We were gonna get shot down again that day due to a storm that was moving in from the bay area. It was not bad there and then, but would be pretty ugly by the time we were supposed to be heading back.

One of the things we had not done yet was wind practice. I had to do so many crosswind landings, and there was a requirement for controling the plane in a crosswind I hadn't done yet, since we'd had a nice long stretch of non-windy days. The cross country was out, but we did have time to go play in the wind, so off we went.

We had taken off in the above plane to go practice holding a straight line in a crosswind. We were heading for a long straight road where I was going to put one wheel over the road and keep it there while the wind tried to blow us sideways. On the way, I noticed that it was getting a little hazy. I don't remember if I said anything, but wrote it off to my glasses being dirty or something, and didn't worry about it. A few minutes later it was definitely clouding up INSIDE the plane. I said "it IS getting smokey in here!" Donn said something instructorish like "Yup" and had me turn back toward the airport. We opened the windows a bit, and he had me turn off the main switch to shut electricity off to the instrument panel. The engine kept running because of the magnetos, but things like the radio and intercom were out.

This was just what I had wanted to have happen, believe me. I wasn't too worried, because we had done a bunch of practice on landing where you needed to in an emergency, and I knew Donn could fly anything in any condition (at least that's what I told myself). But it still wasn't the most comfortable I've ever been.

As we flew back towards Rancho, the smoke did clear out. It looked less and less like we had a serious problem - well, not more serious than forcing us to abort the flight - and partway back he had me turn the power back on so we could use the intercom. It's too noisy in those planes to talk without the headsets. All of the other instruments were turned off, so all we were running was the intercom - still no radio.

We made it back to Rancho Murieta without further incident, but were lothe to turn on the radio even then. So Donn took the opportunity to guide me through landing without one. Rancho's a non-towered airport, so we didn't have that to deal with (there is a procedure involving a light-gun and colored signals), but we did have to watch for traffic that might not see us because they figured they could hear us on the radio. Nobody else was around, but two sets of eyes were really scanning hard on the way in.

We switched to a different plane for the rest of the lesson, and I did ok holding the line in the wind. When we got back, the mechanic that looked at the plane said he had reproduced the smoke, but only briefly. He believed that the recent rain had gotten into the electrical system through a leak in the windshield, and the smoke was that water getting burned off from inside the wires.

Uh-huh. I'm not an electrician, or an electrical engineer, but I wasn't sure I bought that story, and never really felt comfortable in that plane again after that. They fixed the leaky windshield, and it flew many people many places without incident for the rest of the time the club had it, so I believe he may have been on the right track, or at least that whatever it was was a fleeting problem. I did fly it again a few times, but never without keeping an extra eye out for smoke.

That whole experience was not a bad thing, though. Having gone through it, I feel a little more comfortable that I can handle in-air emergencies. I know I can shut the electricity off without losing my engine, I know I can get around without a radio, and am overall more confident in the air. So it worked out.

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