Lifesaving Smoke, Fire and Fume Fighting Tools and Procedures for the GA Pilot

By Jim Chandler

Think back to last weekend when you were burning the leaves you spent all day raking into that huge pile. You’ve just lit the pile and now stand back to admire the flames going straight up. You feel the warmth on your face in the cool fall air and watch the big plumes of white smoke following the flames skyward.

Then, all of a sudden, the wind changes and the fire and smoke engulf you. The heat is intense. Smoke fills your lungs to the point you’re coughing heavily and your eyes burn as you close them and try to run to clear air, not sure if you’re going to run into the lawn mower or the leaf blower. All you want to do is get somewhere away from the intense heat and smoke so you can breathe and see again. This has happened to all of us at some time in our lives. Though the whole episode lasts only 3 to 5 seconds, it’s clear that it doesn’t take long for a peaceful serene setting to turn into a life-on-the-line-situation.

Obviously, I’m relating this to fire and smoke in your airplane, but here the outcome is totally dependent on just two things—your training and your tools. Put yourself in this dreaded scenario:

You’re cruising at 8,000 feet. Your wife is sitting next to you reading the paper, and the kids are in the back playing video games. You look outside the window into the clear blue smooth sky thinking about the next avionics upgrade or the upcoming golf trip with the guys. Then, out of nowhere you’re snapped back into reality with an acrid whiff of electrical fumes or the sight of white smoke coming from your rudder pedals. Everyone asks: “What’s that smell? Where’s that smoke coming from?” Your heart starts to race as your mind fights the reality of what is happening. You’re 15 minutes (not 3 to 5 seconds) from the nearest airport. What do you do?

Hopefully, you have smoke goggles, oxygen masks, or a smoke hood for every seat in the aircraft. These are the tools essential to surviving this situation—you must be able to breathe and to see.

How to mount a fire extinguisher in a Piper: Click Here

According to Air Safety Week, at least once a day somewhere in North America a plane has to make an unscheduled or emergency landing because of an inflight smoke and fire event.

To address this, the Flight Safety Foundation ( has developed the Smoke/Fire/Fumes template (SFF). This international industry initiative promoted by Boeing Industries, addresses electrical, air-conditioning, cabin smoke, and fumes for all airliners, and the checklist adapts to general aviation as well. The checklist is too long for this article, but here are some of the most important items.

According to the FAA, in the event of an in-flight fire: “…delaying the aircraft’s descent by only two minutes is likely to make the difference between a successful landing and evacuation, and a complete loss of the aircraft and its occupants.”


  • First and foremost, protect yourself with oxygen masks, smoke goggles, or smoke hoods. If you can’t breathe or see, you’re toast.
  • Tell ATC your situation. This may be the last transmission you can make due to the environment (turning the avionics master switch off).
  • Extinguish or eliminate the source to prevent escalation of the event.
  • Eliminate the source quickly, simply. Pull circuit breakers, use fire extinguisher, and/or shut the engine down (last resort). Make sure you’re familiar with your extinguisher. It’s not easy to use in the heat of the moment.
  • This equates to the first thing we do in an emergency—aviate and then plan to navigate to your unscheduled landing site. We all know this, but, when your feet are on fire, your eyes are burning, and you’re having trouble breathing, adrenaline will be pumping to the point where common sense is overtaken by the emergency situation. Stay focused. Once panic sets in, you’re along for the ride.

I can’t stress enough the importance of being able to see and breathe in a SFF situation. The following are statements from the FAA and NTSB regarding previous SFFs:

“The reason for the loss of control of the aircraft immediately prior to impact and therefore the most immediate cause of the accident, was the inability of the pilots to maintain adequate control because of the denseness of the smoke within the crew compartment.”

“…the dense smoke in the cockpit seriously impaired the flight crew’s vision and ability to function effectively during the emergency.”

“Flight crews must be protected from toxic fumes to safely fly and land their airplane. Protecting the crew primarily consists of oxygen masks and smoke goggles. Providing an independent oxygen source and protection for the eyes of the crew is essential. In the past smoke goggles have been found to be ill-fitting and therefore unable to provide a complete seal around the face of some wearers.”

“Flight crews are considered incapacitated if their vision is impaired to a point where they can no longer see primary instruments, checklist, or outside in the direction of flight. Flight crews are also considered incapacitated if they do not have sufficient breathable air to sustain operation.”

In my flying career, all the aircraft I flew had PBEs (personal breathing equipment). PBEs consist of smoke goggles, oxygen masks, or smoke hoods. Now that I’m retired and enjoy the freedom of personal flying, I’ve noticed that many of my fellow general aviation enthusiasts do not carry PBEs. We all carry fire extinguishers, but these are just one of the tools needed for a successful SFF event. I can’t imagine taking off with my family and not having a PBE on board. I have four smoke hoods in the back seat pocket on every flight.

How to mount a fire extinguisher in a Piper: Click Here

The successful outcome from a SFF event depends solely on your training and tools on board. The tools—a Halon fire extinguisher, smoke goggles, and oxygen masks or smoke hoods—must be heat resistant and allow breathable air and clear vision for at least 20 minutes. Such equipment, must allow unencumbered control of the aircraft while in use.

How do you prevent a SFF? Be proactive in preventive maintenance.

  1. Immediately deal with fluid leaks found on the aircraft or on the ground before or after a flight!
  2. Always investigate new smells, fuel, oil, or electrical. Remember, some leaks never make it to the ground.
  3. Always replace worn hoses, belts, or wiring. Do not wait until the next annual. These items don’t always have another 25 or 50 hours on them.
  4. Inspect your fire extinguisher regularly and make sure you know how to use it. The best extinguisher on the market is the Halon.

Establish a good relationship with your maintenance facility and make sure they know you don’t cut corners. Give them a monetary amount to repair or replace items without having to get prior approval. Many times I’ve heard, “That leak is not bad. Let’s watch it.” Any leak gets worse as time goes by—fix it when you find it. With older aircraft that have not been upgraded, have your avionics shop do a cursory look at your wiring bundles. Wire insulation is just like human skin, the older it gets, the thinner it becomes.

While these suggestions can’t guarantee avoiding SFF events, they will significantly reduce the chance of them occurring. And you’ll know you’ve done everything possible to prevent them.

For additional in-flight fire guidance, visit

To review the above-mentioned Boeing SFF template, visit:

Jim Chandler is a retired pilot with 40 years of corporate (five type ratings) and airline experience, and over 12,000 hours logged.