Seconds can save lives in an emergency-never forget that, especially with smoke or fire.

777 fire

I am sure most of us have seen on the news recently the 777 fire that occurred a few days ago. It would seem a a flight crew, including cabin crew, correctly and expeditiously dealt with a catastrophic fire and evacuation in a timely fashion which prevented any serious injuries. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of most of the passengers who delayed the evacuation by insisting on removing their personal belongings before leaving the aircraft.

All of this goes to prove that emergency and abnormal procedures need to be throughly understood and regularly practiced. In the disciplined and professional airline enviroment they most certainly are but unfortunately in tbe GA world, and especially in PPL flying training, abnormals and emergency training leave an awful lot to be desired.

A couple of years ago a flying instructor told me that Fire On The Ground didn’t need to be practiced as it was common sense! Unfortunately this sort of misinformed, unprofessional rhetoric is fairly typical of low standard flying instructors and schools.

You can imagine tbe situation on that 777 if the captain had got on the PA  and said, “Well ladies & Gentlemen we are on fire and me and the crew are going to the hotel now but it’s all commom sense so I am sure you will find your way out, good luck and thank you for choosing to fly BA!” OK, that’s quite funny and highly unlikely but what’s not so funny is, that is really what most PPL instructors are saying to you during your training!

Have you ever practiced evacuating the aircraft quickly after dealing with a fire and also practiced getting your passengers out? I will suggest that most of you GA pilots reading this have never ever practiced it, even once!

The last time I saw this aircraft I was flying it into Leeds! Break the rules and the aircraft will usually break you!

The last time I saw this aircraft I was flying it into Leeds! Break the rules and the aircraft will usually break you! Fire can totally destroy an aircraft in seconds

Emergency and abnormal procedures need to be practiced till they become second nature. Practicing means time in the aircraft, not just a quick chat in the briefing room and a tick in the box or being told to go away and read up on it!

Ask yourself now, as you read this, If you were taxying and smoke started coming from behind the instrument panel, would your reaction and subsequent procedure be as a result of sound teaching on your PPL course, common sense or just winging it?

Have you ever sat in your aircraft with your eyes closed (simulating a smoke filled cockpit) and been able to find all the controls you might need in an emergency, including the master switch, the alternator switch, circuit breakers, cockpit lighting, cockpit ventilation and heater controls? I’ve flown with students who didn’t even know that the aircraft they had been flying in had two door release catches! That would have been quite interesting in an emergency evacuation, wouldn’t it?

Evacuation isn’t the same as what happens at the end of a routine flight, evacuation is a rapid exit of the aircraft and to make it rapid you do actually need to practice getting out of the aircraft quickly and more importantly getting your passengers out too. If you are flying with your best granny, who is on the large side, how will you get her out, or will you try and work that out while the aircraft is burning?

Getting out of a Cessna 152 quickly is not as easy as it appears and in fact trying to get out quickly can pose some interesting problems, especially if you do not move the seat FULL REARWARD first.

In the PA 28 there is only one exit, so some thought needs to be given to the order of evacuation with rear seat pax and also you need to consider that if your passenger isn’t very mobile(or becomes unconscious) you may have to climb over them and get them out from the wing position because you will never move them from inside the cabin unless you have a large shovel!

Remember the objective of your PPL training is to ensure you are safe enough to eventually carry passengers, many of whom will probably be your own family and they will be solely reliant on your emergency and abnormal training and your attitude to that training, if something goes wrong.

The noticeable difference between professional flying and amateur GA leisure flying is that professionals are required to be well rehearsed and practiced in abnormal and emergency procedures but amateur GA pilots seem to have the idea that emergencies are never going to happen so they do not need any attention.

They say that amateurs practice till they get it right but the difference is professionals practice till they don’t get it wrong! With any emergency abnormal procedure your performance and chance of success is heavily dependent on your last practice.

Fire is a very frightening experience, especially in an aircraft. The speed at which fire can take hold and spread surprises most people and this is again why you need to take immediate and well rehearsed action.

In 1985 the Bradford Stadium Fire Disaster killed 56 people and injured 256. Using the low standard instructor mentality of dealing with smoke and fire with just common sense should we assume then that these people did not possess common sense? In fact what happened is that they attended a football match never ever thinking that their lives would be ended by smoke inhalation or being burned to death. The events that unfolded on that day totally surprised them and they had little idea of the best way to save themselves given the urgency of the situation and the panic involved.

Below is the video of events that day, watch the time frame, in 4 minutes from the start of the fire the stadium was totally engulfed by flames and completely destroyed a few minutes later. Ask yourself would you have known what to do on that day with the fire intensity producing heat that was igniting peoples clothing and burning tar that was producing thick acrid unbreathable smoke. Several people used common sense and returned to the points that they entered the stadium to find the doors locked. In the same way several passengers in the 1985 Manchester 737 fire are thought to have been making for the original point of entry rather than nearby emergency exits which they could not see due to the thick black dense smoke. Common sense can actually lead you to your death and is never a sensible stand alone substitute for well rehearsed procedure.


Notice that the people at the front on the pitch are still seemingly unaware of the seriousness of the situation, another example of how fire and its effects are not really appreciated by most people until they have been directly involved with the intense heat and smoke that can end your life in seconds. Watch the man on fire (who subsequently died) and ask yourself did he die because of lack of common sense or did he die because he was caught in an event he was understandably completely unprepared for?

Nearly all of the people at Bradford, who died, failed to get out of the stadium in time, so always remember with fire or smoke, TIME is of the essence and the fastest action, including escape, will always result from a well rehearsed, tested procedure, not just common sense.

Below is an interesting aircraft fire which started in the air and eventually destroyed a composite aircraft after it made an emergency landing at Ardmore airfield in New Zealand. This fire seems to have totally caught the airfield fire team off guard who do not even have the correct equipment to deal with the fire which is very alarming. In fact when they do eventually turn up, they park too close to the aircraft, thus endangering their vehicles and give up after after using two small extinguishers. The blaze is eventually brought under control by the local fire brigade (notice how far they park away from the aircraft) Note also that normal operation carries on at the airfield for sometime after the original landing. The whole event is a bit of a pantomime and again highlights that without proper procedures and training common sense may not be the most appropriate course of action.

Aircraft Totally Destroyed By Fire On The Ground

There are four types of fires that an aircraft could develop on the ground:

1.Engine  Fire/smoke

2.Electrical Fire/smoke

3.Engine Starting Induction Fire

4.Cabin/Cockpit Smoke or Fire.

Most of the 53 passengers in the 1985 Manchester air disater died of smole inhalation

Most of the 53 fatalities in the 1985 Manchester air disaster were caused by smoke inhalation after an engine fire and abandoned take off

Any person with apparent signs of smoke inhalation should be immediately evaluated by a medical professional Advanced medical care may be necessary to save the life of the patient, including mechanical ventilation, even if the person is conscious and alert. Pending advanced intervention, the patient should be brought into fresh air and given medical oxygen if available.

Read this article on aircraft fires


Please sign up for the blog, over 1600 people already have! My articles are based upon my opinions and experience of nearly 25,000 hours of very varied professional flying and involvement in 15 different flying schools (most of whom displayed very low standards). Aircraft handbook and flight manual procedures should always be followed.



  1. Excellent article. I seem to remember one excuse for not covering evacuation to PPL students is that you don’t want to frighten them, but that doesn’t seem justifiable to me. Another example of the disparity between public transport operations and private general aviation flying that should not exist.

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