Columnists

April 9, 2012

Smoke In The Cockpit: A True Story of Danger and Hilarity

Charlottetown Airport Terminal
Charlottetown Airport Terminal. (Photo by Matt Jiggins)
It’s the winter of 1994, and for now at least the payroll checks are clearing and business is good. On a clear, bitingly cold evening we’re readying for a scheduled flight from Boston up to Charlottetown, in the Canadian Maritimes.

Charlottetown is the capital of Prince Edward Island, PEI, the smallest and maybe most charming of Canada’s provinces. We do a lot of flying up there, carrying snowbirds down to Florida through our hub at Logan. Our route will take us over Maine, New Brunswick, and across the Bay of Fundy — close to where Swissair will splash to its fate four years from now.

It’s 8 o’clock as the final passengers are coming up the stairs of our 19-seater. The weather is icy but clear. The sky seems as black as the vacuum of space — that New England January darkness that falls with an almost palpable heaviness.

Patrick Smith, born Patrick R Santosuosso of Revere, Massachusetts, a fourth-generation descendant of Neapolitan olive growers, who changed his name to impress a girl, is sitting in the left-hand pilot seat. My first officer, brand new, is Mike, a former Navy fighter pilot from San Francisco whose wife has recently left him for a Chilean businessman. I am 27 years old, and he is 26. A couple of young hotshots, you could say — though Mike, who is tall and square-jawed, his thick black hair closely cropped, looks the pilot part more substantially more than I do.

Our plane is the Fairchild Metroliner, a long, skinny turboprop known for its tight quarters and annoying idiosyncrasies. The plane’s derisive nicknames include “lawn dart” and, if you’ll pardon me, “the Texas tampon,” in tribute to its profile and factory of origin. Most us call it simply, “the Metro.” At Fairchild, down in San Antonio, the guys with the pocket protectors faced a challenge: how to take 19 passengers and make them as uncomfortable as possible? Answer: stuff them side-by-side into a six-foot diameter aluminum tube. Attach a pair of the loudest turbine engines ever made, the Garrett TPE-331, and go easy on the soundproofing. For the crew, provide the tiniest, most ergonomically vicious cockpit possible. Remove the autopilot. All of this for a mere $2.5 million a copy.

(Somewhere out there is a retired Fairchild engineer feeling very insulted. He deserves it.)

As captain of this beastly machine it is my duty not only to safely deliver passengers to their destinations, but to hide in shame from them as they arrive at the aircraft, chortling and spewing insults: “Does this thing really fly?” and “Man, who did you piss off?”

The answer to that first question is sort of. The Metro is equipped with a pair of minimally functioning ailerons, and a control wheel in need of a placard marking it for decorative purposes only. In other words the plane is sluggish, slow to respond. Crosswind landings can be an adventure.

The typical flight is very, um, interactive. The Metro is too small for a cockpit door, allowing for 19 backseat drivers whose gazes spend more time glued to the instruments than ours do. I have doctored up one of my chart binders with these prying eyes in mind. On the front cover, in oversized stick-on letters I have put: HOW TO FLY, stowing the book on the floor in full view of the first few rows. During approach I’ll pick it up and flip through the pages, eliciting some hearty laughs — or shrieks.

The view of the cockpit is even more entertaining if, as occasionally is the case, somebody has spit-glued a magazine photo across the radar screen. Our radar units, mounted in the middle of the panel and visible all the way to the aft bulkhead, look like miniature TV sets, and are used to detect storms and precipitation. On clear autumn days when we zip VFR up the coast between Boston and Portland, or from the Cape down to Newark, they are switched off. Those with lively imaginations might clip out a ridiculous picture from a newspaper or magazine and adhere it to the empty screen. A man in a chef’s hat carrying a wedding cake, I recall, was one memorable choice.

As a final insult, the designers made sure there is absolutely no room for pilots to store their equipment. Our books — leather binders full of maps and instrument landing charts — have to be stacked on the floor near the center pedestal between the two seats. During takeoff they’ll sometimes slide beneath the curtain and go skidding down the aisle.

Add a couple of pornographic magazines to those books and charts, and you can understand just how embarrassing things can get. I’d like to tell you such a mishap is apocryphal, except I know the person it happened to. Let’s call him Eric, and pretend he was from Lewiston, Maine. That’s the same Eric who thought it would be amusing to dangle a pair of velvet red dice from the overhead standby compass. That one had customers giggling, pointing, slapping him on the back, and sending letters the FAA. Poor Eric lost a paycheck, and earned a blemish on his record that would have recruiters at the major airlines affixing the wrong color Stickies to his resume.

As you can doubtless tell, things are a bit faster and looser, which is to say younger, at the regional carriers. We are twentysomething kids, many of us making poverty level wages, sitting at the controls of million-dollar aircraft. The incongruity of it all can make us silly.

But back to our flight to Charlottetown.

Our Metro, registered N61NE, is painted red and gray in the uniform of our corporate big brother and supplier of passengers, Northwest Airlines. Below the cockpit window near the main cabin door, it says Spirit of Partnership in both English and Russian. A couple of years earlier, this same plane completed a round-the-world publicity flight with an American and Russian crew, the gist of which is now immortalized in white stenciled letters. Beneath the English inscription, the Cyrillic figures of the Russian alphabet are reminiscent of the old “CCCP” jerseys of Soviet hockey players.

It is our tradition prior to every takeoff to dedicate the flight, in a kind of pre-takeoff prayer, to whichever attractive female celebrity is idling in our lust-addled minds at the time. Tonight, our journey to PEI has been launched in honor of Janine Turner, cherub-faced beauty of TV’s Northern Exposure.

“Northeast 3762, cleared for takeoff, two-two right,” I acknowledge. “Here’s to Janine,” answers Mike, slowly brining the power levers forward.

Lifting off from Logan’s runway 22R, we climb quickly in the frigid air and turn out over the coast. Mike is flying the plane while I handle ATC, twisting a few knobs and gazing into the boreal skyscape. We level at 19,000 feet. In the cold clear sky, the whitish halos of several cities are visible. Boston, Providence, Worcester, Manchester, Portland.

The lights of the rocky coast of Maine, around the area of Kennebunkport, are off to the left, when I first notice the smoke. I smell it first, followed by Mike about ten seconds later.

“Um,” I say.

“Smells like insulation,” says Mike. He’s talking about wiring — the burning of the rubbery insulation wires are wrapped in. Electrical smoke is very distinct — acrid, with a glint of ammonia. It’s hard to explain, but if there could be such a thing as a “high pitched” odor, it would be that of electrical smoke. It’s not a smell you generally like to discover in an airplane at night over the water.

The stink is faint, but it’s unequivocally a stink. It seems to be coming from a circuit breaker panel just to my left — an encasement of wires at roughly the height of my armrest and running aft behind the cockpit.

I run my hands across the panel, sticking my face into the dusty plastic to find the trouble spot. While I sniff around like a dog, my thumb comes to rest on a big metal switch, a lever almost, called an electrical bus transfer. A half-second later I’m yelling “Shit!” and yanking my arm away. That switch is hot as an iron.

“Mike, this transfer switch is messed up.”

“Hm.”

“Something’s not right in there.”

“What’s it, hot?”

“Yeah.”

“Hm.”

There are no flames, no noises, and nothing beyond ordinary on the instruments in front of us. No alarms, lights, failed meters or dancing needles. There’s not even any smoke, exactly — no curling wisps to trace to their source. The problem is teasing and totally unseen. But something’s wrong and there’s a nose-wrinkling stink and my burned thumb to prove it. “Get out the book,” I say to Mike.

With that I will excuse the reader from the technical babble of the checklists and procedural esoterica that follows. I’ll only make mention of how different a heat-of-battle problem feels versus the ones pilots grow accustomed to in the simulators. It’s always new and different when the show is live. There’s no audience, for one thing — no churlish instructor hovering over our shoulders to congratulate or cajole us either way. Neither is there a reset button. After an incident, those who listen to the black boxes’ confessional might detect only a perfunctory recitation of a checklist or a flawless execution of good sense. They cannot taste the adrenaline or feel the pangs of worry, for those exist only in the guts and minds of the crew, often as unobservable as the strange odor Mike and I are preoccupied with. (Though other times not: voices raised and breaking, curses shouted, a situation gone to hell — the kind of thing even the most hardened investigator, like a cop at a really bad crime scene, never gets used to.)

Fortunately, tonight, there’s little drama and nothing for the tapes. The smoke remains invisible and undetectable to anyone else on board. In fact the scent grows increasingly faint, sparing us the discomfort, if not the indignity, of putting on oxygen masks. In a matter of minutes it has all but vanished.

What has happened, however, is we’ve turned the plane 180 degrees and headed back to Logan.

“Look Mike,” I say. “I really don’t think there’s a fire in there, but something is burned out. That transfer switch shouldn’t be like that. How about we head back to Boston?”

“Sure,” says Mike without the vaguest hint of emotion. He is wearing a midnight blue cardigan, and at 6’2″ seems oversized in our cramped cockpit. I’m still partially hunched over from sniffing at the circuit breakers. Mike looks down at me and raises a dark eyebrow. “Sure.” he repeats.

“If anything changes we’ll duck into Portland or Portsmouth.” There are airports the whole way.”

“Sure.”

There is talk of declaring an emergency. In the press and media, “emergency landing” is a catch-all for virtually any precautionary landing or turn-back, but for aircrews it has particular meaning and consequences. With certain problems — an engine fire, for instance — emergency declarations are mandatory. Other times it is left to the captain’s discretion. This is one of those times, and neither of us feels the situation is sufficiently urgent.

Nevertheless, I double-check the pressure on the portable fire extinguisher behind us. I unbuckle it from the harness and place it near me on the floor. Then I call our dispatcher on company frequency and let him know what’s going on. He puts a mechanic on the line. The mechanic asks what the trouble is, and basically agrees with our assessment.

Air traffic control is looking for info. “Why are you turning back?” they want to know. “How much fuel have you got? How many souls on board?”

I was waiting for that. The souls thing comes up even in the most mildly abnormal situations. A light burns out and they’re asking about “souls on board.” It isn’t people they’re concerned with, exactly, it’s souls. The intent, should the worst occur, is to have a full and accurate count of a plane’s occupants, including all crewmembers, infants or lap children, and any other sentient entity perhaps not listed on the passenger manifest. It’s a sensible thing, even if it makes me uneasy. It’s a number for the firemen. It’s for the searchers and the rescuers and those who’ll tally up the dead.

It happens there are 19 souls in the cabin behind us — a full complement. And these 19, belted into their gray leather seats, need to know what the hell is going on. While Mike is guiding us expertly on a southwesterly course, back toward runway 22L at Logan, I decide to make a PA. I rehearse its finer points a couple of times in my head: Slight electrical problem. No danger. Turning back as a precaution. Perfect weather at Logan. Back to Canada as soon as we can. No mention of Janine Turner.

I pick up the microphone to make my speech. But wait, there’s music playing. Shit, Mike, we left the tape running. The Spirit of Partnership, like most of our Metros, has a built-in, automobile-style cassette player through which all regulatory announcements are taken care of by a sober-sounding fellow with a voice like James Earl Jones. Side A is the before-takeoff safety demo. Later, we flip to side B for the pre-landing spiel. With the tape decks on hand, I sometimes carry albums to work. Out on the apron between flights, I listen to music and have lunch.

Every now and then I leave the music playing by mistake. Once we’re up, neither I nor the first officer can hear a note of it, strapped with headsets and busy reading “HOW TO FLY.” Surely some people dig it. What’s more consoling to passengers, already agitated and uncomfortable, than belligerent rock music, especially when mixed with the din of thousand-horsepower engines? En route to Burlington, Vermont, one evening, the noise was enough to prompt a weary-looking businessman to stick his head into the cockpit and ask, “Could you please turn that racket off?” Dammit, the tape! I reached for the player, then paused with my finger on the switch and asked him, “You mean the music, or the engines?”

Hüsker Dü, the Wedding Present. On mellower days it’s the Jazz Butcher, the Reivers, maybe the Velvet Underground. I’ll get seasonal too: the Misfits on Halloween. Tonight, the people have been listening to the greatest hits of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions for the last 45 minutes.

I punch out the tape, shutting of Cole’s “Lost Weekend” in mid chorus (now playing for the fourth time), pause a few seconds, and make my announcement. I am pleased at how crisp, fluid, and tight it comes out — a perfect little narrative. I congratulate myself. Nice job. However, when I look behind me into the cabin, I don’t see that look of collective nervousness I expect. I don’t see uncertain calm and tentative grins of confidence in mine and Mike’s expertise. I suddenly realize hat of the 19 souls back there, not one of them has a working knowledge of the English language.

And what do they speak? Well what would you expect a Maritime-bound group of passengers to speak, if not English? French? Acadian Creole?

How about Japanese? Yes, Japanese. We are carrying a Japanese package tour from Boston to Prince Edward Island. Behind me are 19 Japanese faces nodding and smiling ear-to-ear as if I told them we’ve all won the lottery. A man in the back row gives me a thumbs-up.

Mike laughs.

“What? Why didn’t you tell me!”

“Hm?” says Mike. “You didn’t notice when they came on board?”

“No, I didn’t. I was listening to Lloyd Cole.”

“Who?”

“When I was filling out the weight and balance sheet, you said ’19 people.’ You didn’t say ’19 Japanese people who don’t speak English.‘”

“Sorry,” answers Mike. “Thought you knew.” Then he starts laughing again.

Now, you might wonder, why would a large group of Japanese people be traveling from Massachusetts to that most diminutive of Canadian provinces, 7,000 miles from home? Well there is an answer, boggling as it turns out. The quiet island of PEI is the setting of Anne of Green Gables, the famous, or somewhat famous, children’s story authored by Lucy Maud Montgomery, about an orphan girl who goes to live on PEI. For reasons that have never fully been explained, and which may indeed be inexplicable, there is a certain and very powerful Japanese obsession with this tale, and with little Anne in particular.

Anne of Green Gables covers from the United States (left) and Japan (right).

Anne of Green Gables covers from the United States (left) and Japan (right).

This odd phenomenon is the subject of some quasi-scholarly review It’s like Elvis, only — and how can I say this — uniquely, bizarrely Japanese.

The Japanese are known to make trips — pilgrimage is such a strong word — congregating on the island to live out some strange Anne of Green Gables fantasy, highlighted by a visit to the Green Gables House, at the Lucy Maud Montgomery National Historical Site, in the town of Cavendish. What happens later, in those bed and breakfast cottages, I choose not to imagine.

Our Charlottetown runs are routinely smattered with fixated Japanese tourists. That’s nothing new, but this is our first All-Anne Experience. Looking closely, we notice that several of our customers are decked out with assorted Anne paraphernalia — books, t-shirts, handbags.

“Well, I think they’ve got their seatbelts on.”

Boston appears in the distance. Fifteen minutes after we first smelled smoke, we see the approach lights to 22L, just beyond Beachmont and the oval track of Suffolk Downs. We do some checklists again. At 2,000 feet Mike says, “How about gear down?” I lift and pull a white lever releasing the plane’s six tires.

Then, about three miles out, I notice something on the ground. There’s an unusual glow — a shimmering, fluorescent bloom coming from the runway. As we near the airport, a huge collection of multicolored lights reveals itself. From two miles out it starts to look like a giant upended Christmas tree. Some of the lights are flashing; some are steady; some are red; some are blue. Some are moving speedily over the ground while others remain still. I know what’s happening and so does Mike.

Emergency or not, the tower controllers have called out the trucks. The emergency apparatus has assaulted the runway like it’s Omaha Beach on D-Day. There are three huge yellow crash trucks that look like locomotives, any one of which is more than twice the size of our plane. There are two regular fire engines, three ambulances, five police cars, and two miscellaneous black sedans with those stick-on sirens. It looks like a disaster scene — a plane crash that hasn’t happened yet.

I glance back at the passengers. They smile and wave and there’s a bright blue pop as somebody takes a picture. It dawns on me that they believe we are about to touch down not in Boston, but in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Mike guides the Spirit of Partnership onto the pavement and lifts the four-bladed props into reverse. As we slow down, the phalanx of doomsday vehicles is on us. The locomotives are coming up behind, along the centerline, and the rest are racing down the taxiways on either side.

As we clear the runway, we find ourselves surrounded, blinded in the whirling insanity of a hundred colored lights. “Mike,” I say. “I’ve got the plane. Tell them we don’t need any assistance. Then call the company and tell them we’re taxiing in.”

Having heard our report, several of the vehicles peel off reluctantly, one at a time. “What are the passengers doing?” I ask.

Mike starts to laugh again. He looks behind him and reports that our souls have become somewhat aware of the situation, if not quite comprehending. There are 38 raised eyebrows and many fingers pointing out the windows toward the shiny fire trucks. People are talking loudly and tapping one another on the shoulder.

We receive taxi clearance and make a right turn toward our parking area. Not all of the emergency vehicles, I notice, have abandoned the chase and returned to their poker games over at the station. Apparently the captain’s authority doesn’t extend from the airplane to the cars and trucks outside. If he says “We don’t need any help,” well the firemen may or may not agree.

One of the big locomotives has pulled up to our right and is taxiing along with us. I can tell from the white throw of headlights there’s at least one other vehicle in the rear. The whole thing must look ridiculous — our go-cart plane escorted by the flashing, siren-blaring seriousness of these huge machines. I’m a little irritated. Those headlights are burning behind me and I keep wanting to jab the brakes, the way you’d scare off a tailgater. When we at last come to our parking area, we taxi up with all the pomp and attention of a presidential motorcade cutting through a small town.

We shut down, run another checklist, and open the door to the murmur of some obviously chagrined Japanese. The passengers will be instructed to walk down the stairs, across twenty feet of asphalt, and onto a red bus that will bring them to the terminal.

This is also the point where we’d normally make our farewell PA — thanks for flying and all that. But, well, what are you gonna do?

I head outside to supervise the exit, and to explain to the driver what’s going on. What I see before me on the tarmac I briefly mistake for an apparition. Five firefighters, each head-to-toe in the full silver regalia of a crash suit, are walking from their locomotive towards the airplane.

A crash suit, if you’ve never seen one, is a bulky, one-piece affair made of fireproof metallic material. The shape and bulk are like a snowsuit, except it’s glitteringly silver and comes with a helmet, welder’s-style face shield, and an oxygen tank on the back. It appears that we are under attack from a brigade of astronauts.

Our Japanese tourists step from the airplane and into the arms of these strangely dressed figures, who guide them with enormous asbestos mittens onto the bus. A number of people have become disoriented in the chaos of flashing lights, trucks and spacemen, and are wandering in assorted directions away from the plane. They are carrying expensive designer carry-ons and dangling Anne of Green Gables books. The spacemen chase them down.

Several passengers, we eventually find out, are indeed lost to the reality that we’ve returned to Logan. Later, one of them will ask a Boston cab driver for directions to the Green Gables house, enquiring if a ten-dollar bill is enough to reach his Charlottetown hotel. A translator will be summoned to explain that Prince Edward Island is still 500 miles away.

With the last straggler rounded up, a firefighter approaches. I’m stand near the wing, listening to his truck’s clamorously idling diesel. He takes his helmet off, which makes his head look like a grapefruit on top of a snowman.

“You all set?” he says.

This article was originally published on Salon.com. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist and author behind the site www.AskThePilot.com. In his spare time he has visited more than 70 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


  • Tina Wayt

    Love this story !  You should be writing … a better career course.  

    Tina  UAL  33years

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/RUEKWTP6RDLCQR3VF3KJDJOSGM tt

    So, did you find out what was wrong with the electrical system ?