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Safety Spotlight: Emergency Procedures

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Fire is one of the worst things that can go wrong in an airplane. When faced with smoke and/or fire, your primary goal is to fly the airplane safely to the ground as quickly as practical.

Electrical Fire

Many pilots associate an in-flight fire with a flame-filled cockpit. Usually, though, the first signs of an electrical fire are much more subtle—a slight burning odor, a higher than normal electrical load, or tripped circuit breakers, for example. Abnormal behavior of electrical components such as avionics—and random failures of multiple components—can also tip you off to fire in a hidden area.

“Declare an emergency—Advise ATC you have a fire and may need to shut down the aircraft’s electrical system. You will receive priority handling!”


Shut down all the electrical equipment and then bring it back online, one piece at a time. This can help trace the issue to the faulty equipment. On the other hand, if the circumstances don’t require electrical power, it’s best to leave everything turned off. If there’s a significant amount of smoke in the cockpit, head for the ground. Have a small Halon fire extinguisher handy in the cockpit. A smoke hood may also be a worthwhile purchase.

Circuit Breakers

Aircraft electrical systems have circuit breakers or fuses that protect the wiring—not an electrical device—by opening (i.e., “popping”) the circuit in the event of a current overload. This stops the flow of electricity before the wire’s amperage rating is exceeded and it overheats. Therefore, only reset essential breakers when absolutely necessary—but recognize that this can re-create the situation that caused the problem in the first place, potentially causing the fire to reignite. Never reset non-essential circuit breakers.

Damaged Wiring

The presence of smoke or a burning odor is a sure indicator that wiring has been damaged, rendering the aircraft unairworthy. Write a detailed incident description in the aircraft’s maintenance log or discrepancy sheet, noting which components were in use when the problem started. This, along with appropriately placed placards and/or other notices, informs other pilots of the aircraft’s status and prevents it from being operated until the problem has been addressed.

Damaged Wiring or The Regs

Ignition Source

Damaged wiring may serve as an ignition source for surrounding fabric, oil, fuel, or other contaminants. In older aircraft, the wiring insulation could sustain a fire—and it may continue to burn even after the circuit breaker has tripped. In addition to flames, the smoke from the insulation or surrounding materials may be toxic and incapacitating.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Aging Aircraft safety spotlight is an excellent free resource to help aircraft owners recognize and mitigate risks associated with aging aircraft.

Engine Fire

An immediate emergency landing is usually the best response to an engine fire. Shut off the fuel, make an emergency descent, and find a place to land. If fire reaches fuel tanks, or other critical parts of the airframe, the consequences could be dire.

The presence of smoke or a burning odor is a sure indicator that wiring has been damaged, rendering the aircraft no longer airworthy.

Real Pilot Story: Fire in the Cockpit

One minute, it was a routine training flight—the next, a struggle for survival. Learn how the instructor handled the emergency before the cockpit was completely engulfed in flames.

Fire Strategies

  • Prepare to land—Fly the aircraft, stay calm, and land as soon as possible, even if it means an off-airport landing. In IMC, try to reach VFR conditions.

  • Declare an emergency—Advise ATC you have a fire and may need to shut down the aircraft’s electrical system. You will receive priority handling!

  • Circuit breakers—Look for tripped circuit breakers and turn off their associated components. If you can identify a component that is potentially involved and not essential to a safe landing, but its breaker isn’t tripped, pull the breaker.

  • Master switch—If you can’t immediately identify the problem, turn off the master switch, then individually turn off all the other electrical components. You will lose lighting, electrical flaps, and certain flight instruments once the master switch is off.

  • Extinguisher—Equip the cockpit with a Halon fire extinguisher in case you need to put out flames.

  • Know your aircraft’s electrical system—Assist with your aircraft’s routine inspections and maintenance and attend programs or seminars sponsored by aircraft type clubs, maintenance experts, the AOPA Air Safety Institute, and the FAA.