Surprise at 11,000 feet

It was a beautiful day and very cold. The skies were clear, making it a great day to fly. I was flying the company airplane, going to pick up the CEO and his wife in Alabama. I was allowed to take a rider along, and I filed for 11,000 feet. I picked up my clearance on the ground, loaded in all the particulars of the flight plan in the Garmin G1000, double checked the route and verified the departure, then finally contacted ground for taxi. It was nice having someone along to share the joy of flying in our new company airplane, a Quest Kodiak. It is a beautiful plane and a dream to fly, with a 750 hp Pratt & Whitney engine, loads of power and it climbs out with ease.

Kodiak
Any day you get to pull this beast out of the hangar, it’s a good day.

We departed and were on our way, being guided with radar vectors, as we were handed off to Tulsa Departure then a center handoff to Memphis Center. The flight was going well, with a smooth ride, and we were enjoying the view from my new office. Eventually, about two hours into our trip, my passenger told me that he was really cold and some cold air was blowing in on him. I made some changes on the cabin heat, increasing the temperature and making sure that the outside air vents were turned off.

About ten minutes later, he again said that it had helped but there was still some very cold air coming in from somewhere, but he could not figure where it was coming from. I felt fine and was wondering what could be causing this. The Kodiak has a door seal that inflates when the door is closed and locked, making it quieter up front and I wondered if it was the seal.

We both were checking, feeling the sides of the door, yet we could not find where this cold air was entering. Earlier I showed him where the main control lever/knob was and showed him how to make adjustments on the amount of air that would come in from the outside, mixing it with the bleed air from the engine. It was a reddish knob that could be pulled out to completely shut off the air. It was on the dash directly under the yoke on the right side. It was hard to see for the person on the right side, so you had to look off to the side to see it. Well, I showed him the lever and he pulled it out. This helped, I was relieved, and he was warming up.

Just as we were flying over Memphis at 11,000 feet, I was enjoying looking out at the city on my side when all of the sudden there was a huge forward surge as the engine quit and alarms, tones, and buzzers all started sounding! I immediately pulled back on the yoke and shouted, “What happened?!”

I feathered the prop as I watched the gauges, all indicating that the engine quit. I silenced the alarms and called out MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY with Memphis Center and told them that I had a flame out and immediately they gave me vectors to the nearest airport. I knew that the Kodiak would glide two miles for every thousand feet, so I asked them to give me something straight out ahead of me. They did give me vectors to a different airport. Then I started the process of getting the engine restarted.

I fell back to my yearly recurrent training that I must have for insurance requirements to fly the Kodiak and all the drilling and practice paid off. There is a reason that the insurance companies require you to go back through recurrent training every year and it is worth the money the company spends. Trainers have always said that we revert to what we practice and that is exactly what happened.

So, as I was pulling back on the yoke and trying to decipher what just happened, I looked at the passenger and said, “Did you do something?” And he sheepishly said “All I did was pulled out this red knob…”

I was shocked! He had pulled the FIREWALL FUEL SHUTOFF VALVE! I immediately pushed it back in and I knew what to do for a restart. It seemed like an eternity waiting to see the engine spool to life and all the gauges go back into the green as they were just minutes before. I was pretty puckered up, as they say, but I was glad to report that I didn’t have to change my pants. I didn’t have any extra with me anyway; neither did my passenger.

Kodiak quadrant
Two red knobs, two very different outcomes.

After the engine came to life, I looked at the altimeter and saw that I had lost almost 2000 feet. As I established a climb, I called Memphis Center and told them that I got it started and would continue my flight, canceling the emergency. Surprisingly they went on with my request without missing a beat. They bid me well after assuring that I was OK and continued with a handoff to the next controller. I never had to fill out any forms, but I did fill out a NASA report just in case. I was sort of concerned that the FAA would contact me and want to interview me, but nothing happened.

Needless to say, I could hardly eat at the lunch with the CEO and his wife after we landed. I was somewhat sick to my stomach, not interested in eating. I didn’t mention anything to him until we were back safe after a nice flight and it was just he and I. He took it well and to this day I still get a few jabs about passengers pulling knobs and levers causing me to flinch at the thought of that ever happening again.

Lessons learned:

  • Keep your head and don’t give into being overwhelmed. Panicking makes it worse.
  • Fly the plane!
  • Practice, practice, practice.
  • Before every flight, I show the passenger sitting in the right seat exactly what are my controls and I tell them, “Don’t touch nothing in this area.”

Oh, for those wondering if we ever found out what was causing the cold air, we took the plane in for a modification on the air dispersion unit and that seemed to end that problem. Even though the passenger was way out of line to pull anything before conferring with the pilot, as I explained it to the owner of the airplane, we both saw a similarity in the color and the movement between the two levers. But that placard that says in bold type “FIREWALL FUEL SHUTOFF VALVE” didn’t seem to describe danger of pulling up that knob.

The Kodiak is an incredible airplane, sturdy, stout, with some amazing performance qualities. It is roomy, air conditioned, has a huge payload, and has satellite radio, NEXRAD weather, and TKS – which makes the flights so comfortable with tools to assist the pilot to fly in some challenging environments. Even though an aircraft can have all the bells and whistles, the pilot must still fly the plane.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

22 Comments

  • Interesting article, thank you! Glad all went well.

    It’s a typical example of context in human machine interfaces. ““FIREWALL FUEL SHUTOFF VALVE” can be understood by anyone who piloted an aircraft, and one would assume that “fuel shutoff” should be logical even to people who did NOT yet pilot a plane (if fuel is shut off, the engine stops), but apparently it’s not. So a “Don’t touch” placard might be useful indeed.

    • That’s a big ergonomics issue. Really not a good idea for a cabin heat knob to be bright red, same as an emergency knob. There’s a case for making the firewall shutoff knob guarded, especially when passengers might be in the right seat.

  • Remember the Far Side cartoon with the airline seats, each equipped with a two-position lever labeled “wings stay on” and “wings fall off”?

  • That would be one heck of a surprise! I think that just reinforces the need for a pax brief before every flight. I’m as guilty as anyone else about not always briefing properly but I think I’m going to change that from now on.

  • how’d you manage a neat-o corporate job like that though? what a refreshing change that must be to fly something neat like that and get paid to do it!!

  • After zooming in to read the labels, it looks like a labeling fail to me. “Firewall Air Shutoff” and “Firewall Fuel Shutoff”. Really? There must have been more words to chose from on panel labeling day.
    And who decided red was a good color for the vent knob?
    Given the drastic result of pulling one knob vs the other, and update in labeling and knob color would be a great choice.

  • Impressive glide ratio of 12:1 for a fixed gear airplane with wing struts and a baggage pod. Must be the feathered prop.

    To Capt Odato: Pulling back is necessary to maintain altitude while slowing / trimming to best glide speed.

  • If I was the CEO, I would have been more impressed if you had taken complete responsibility for your cockpit as the PIC rather than blaming the unqualified passenger for being “out of line.” The concept of “final authority” is important and not always well understood. The open link in this (potential) mishap chain was when you gave him permission to start pulling knobs in the first place. You took away some good lessons, but I would reverse the sequence of your bullets. Always start by analyzing your actions as PIC—it will serve you well.

  • The placard print is quite small so I can imagine the non pilot passenger reaching over and pulling the fuel shut off valve without reading what’s printed next to it. I can also understand how the passenger became confused and pulled the fuel shutoff even after having been shown the correct air vent knob. To a non pilot the panel and all the buttons, knobs, and switches can be confusing and overwhelming. The pax certainly thought he was pulling the correct red knob.

    Reminds me of the tragic site seeing helicopter that went down in the East River when a strap snagged the unguarded fuel shutoff valve in the AS350, thankfully with a much better ending. Agree with other comments that the fuel shutoff valve should be guarded to avoid such things.

  • My persona changes in the cockpit, as it should. I’ve been in an aircraft crash in the military, as an enlisted crew member operating a tow reel. It would not have mattered in that crash if I was the pilot. No injuries other than ego and the aircraft was consumed in a 115-145 octane avgas blue flame burning fireball. If you were behind us escaping, all you would have seen is open ramp area near the runway with three assholes and six elbows pulling away from you in a sprint………and a Grumman US2C waiting for the tanks to go…which they did. I remember a muffled “whoosh” but it was described as more of a muffled “whump” to those further away.

    Unless someone as heavily involved in aviation as I was is sitting next to me in the now retired $60.00 hamburger transporter……….you are instructed with the two fingers— my eyes/your eyes—to leave your hands in your lap after you’ve put on your seat/shoulder harness on and leave them there unless you need to itch something. As you learn……you get privileges. The Grandkids are now teens and they’re good to go……and both can land the aircraft if Grandpa takes the eternal dirt nap. This was mandatory on my part. They both can preflight, take off, fly the pattern, land……and all they need now is the 40 hours of instruction by a qualified flight instructor. He’ll be happy with what I’ve done with them. They or their parents will pay for their flight instruction. My money is reserved for their college education…which I have informed them if they blow they will owe me.

    Anyway. Instruct your passenger to keep their hands to themselves.

  • Not directly related…in my tandem cockpit, my brief is “don’t touch anything I haven’t already ok’d”. To fly with me my pax must be old enough to at least have a learner’s permit so they recognize their actions have consequences. For those younger, they get hoisted up on the wing for a look and can stick around until they/their parents are done. Makes it a consistent, non-judgemental answer to those who want me to take Johnny/Jill flying…and if they weren’t really interested anyway, by the time they hit that age they’ll have found something else to do with their time.

  • The knob is red probably because it is an emergency air shutoff. I have one also in my very old Debonair! It is also red and supposed to be used in case of engine fire. But I close it in summer to keep the cabin cooler. However mine is not accessible to the passenger.

  • I’m relatively new to flying (~200 hrs over 3 years), but during my training and even now I fly with a lot of different instructors. I’ve also followed several different ground school courses (King, Sporty’s, MZeroA, and others). I learn something different from each of them, and I enjoy the variety. But never once has one of my umpteen instructors suggested including this ”Do Not Touch” item in my passenger briefing checklist. Thanks to this article it’s now prominently located right at the end of the checklist. Thanks for adding to my ever-building lot of tools for mitigating the risks of flying!

  • Nice article John, it is neat to see you contributing articles and also now in a corporate pilot position. Glad this story had a happy (at least not bad) ending and best of luck in your flying endeavors!!

  • Check with P&WC ON REQUIRED MAINTENANCE WHEN THIS HAPPENS. CAVITATION OF THE ENGINE DRIVEN HIGH PRESSURE FUEL PUMP IS ISSUE. In the early 80’s this happened to customer on a -11 and P&WC had us R/R high pressure pump and FCU with overhauled exchange units.

  • Good story. KUDOS TO THE PIC FOR SHARING IT!! The experience was clearly a ‘teachable moment’ for him! The recurrent reminders of his lapse are a good social tool to cement his lesson firmly in his memory & practice.

    I agree with comments that the PIC pre-flight pax briefing was woefully inadequate. Ditto for the PIC’s failure to monitor the pax’s actions. And ditto for the terrible panel layout that places BOTH bright red handles well away from the pilot… out of sight and tough to reach. Should an engine fire occur, the remote location of these critical controls could induce vertigo… definitely a complicating factor in IMC, dark night VMC, whiteout, or flat light conditions.

  • Dear John Karasek,
    You had the intuition to ask him if he pulled out anything. It was the firewall shutoff valve that you quickly identified and had the situation back to all ‘greens’. Lucky. Aviate ! Navigate ! Communicate ! Third item saved your day.
    I read about Kodiak and seems to be a great airplane. How does she take flights into known icing conditions ?

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