Flying 1,500 miles with fumes in the cockpit

I will admit up front, this is the most scared I’ve ever been in an airplane!

We were flying a B-1B, non-stop from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. We were heading home after a lengthy deployment; we were all looking forward to family reunions and that Big Hug!

We departed Guam at 2200 local time, along with an accompanying KC-10 “Extender” tanker. We took a quick sip of gas shortly after takeoff, to test our air refueling system, then topped off about two hours later.

It’s roughly 3,300 nm from Guam to Hawaii. The plan was to fill up again northwest of Hawaii; we would then continue to our destination, and the tanker would land back at Hickam AFB on Oahu.

B-1B
Over the Pacific Ocean, at night, is not the time for fumes.

Just past the halfway point, we suddenly got hammered by an extremely pungent odor in the cockpit. Our training kicked in and we immediately went from our “cruise comfort” configuration (regular David Clark headsets with boom mics) to donning our helmets with oxygen masks secured. The smell was so bad, you could almost taste it. Even with our masks on, there was still a faint odor. Without a tight mask seal, it made you gag.

Once everyone was “up” on oxygen, we quickly jumped into completing the Smoke and Fumes Elimination checklist. A key step in that checklist is: Determine source of smoke.

But there was no smoke.

In fact, there were no Master Caution Panel lights, individual system warning lights, or any other indications. All the instruments appeared normal, the engines responded to throttle movements correctly, and all the flight controls functioned properly. All our equipment, including the complex, automated fuel and center of gravity management system (FCGMS), still worked. The B-1B also has an integrated test capability that monitors virtually every system on board the jet, and it showed no malfunctions.

The scariest part: it definitely did not smell “electrical,” and we could not isolate the source. There were no strange sounds, abnormal vibrations, or unusual “seat-of-the-pants” sensations. To my very experienced crew, everything felt normal.

The Bone has several fire, overheat, and pressurization-related emergency procedure checklists. We went through each one, very methodically, several times… of course, we had nothing better to do!

I ordered the crew to also go through our “controlled ejection” and “bailout” checklists.

After completing all these checklists, we realized it’s virtually impossible to fight an invisible enemy. We turned off everything we didn’t need to aviate and navigate with; we shut off all the cockpit lighting to help us see if anything was “glowing” in the dark.

Nothing.

I had one of my weapon systems officers (B-1B crew: 2 pilots, 2 WSOs) unstrap from his ejection seat, and go back into our electronic equipment bay—a small cubicle behind the crew station, to see if he could detect any smoke or flames.

Nothing.

The copilot grabbed our one-and-only fire extinguisher and held it in his lap for the remaining three hours of our flight. The plan was, as soon as we saw any flames, he would discharge the whole bottle; if they went out, we would deal with whatever circumstances we were left with.

If they didn’t go out, we’d eject.

The weather was “tropical” VMC; there were lots of cumulus clouds scattered along our route of flight, and we had maybe half-moon illumination. I was not concerned about maintaining a specific heading, other than to keep pointing at Hawaii, which was our only “land as soon as possible” divert option.

At the relatively low altitudes we cruised at, there was no chance we were going to run into anybody over the middle of the Pacific Ocean at night.

KC-10
Those tankers are more than just fuel storage; in an emergency they are a lifeline.

Meanwhile, the tanker became our lifeline. They could climb much higher and serve as a communication link between us, ATC, and any search and rescue assets that might be needed.

They could also keep track of our position, including marking our location if we did eject.

As a last resort, the “smoke and fumes elimination” checklist calls for slowing below 450KIAS, staying below 25,000 ft., and opening a ram air door to vent the fumes. We tried that initially, but it didn’t improve our situation. Since we knew the fire was not associated with the engines, we decided to use our full fuel load to go faster. We did some quick math and figured out that we could afford to push the throttles up to a fuel flow that netted us about .85 Mach, way faster than the .72 Mach we would have used to cruise all the way to South Dakota.

We ended up getting well ahead of the KC-10, but we could still talk to them and they could still follow our progress. The tanker guys were great; they kept checking on us—I think mostly to make sure we hadn’t “succumbed” to whatever was burning—which was not a bad idea. (They also tried to keep the mood light by entertaining us with some jokes… yeah, not so much!)

So, on we flew in the dark, still committed to finding the source, but to no avail. I handled all the driving; the copilot kept up his vigil with the fire extinguisher; the WSOs maintained verbal contact with the tanker, monitored our position, kept track of our systems status, and kept us updated on Hawaiian airport and enroute weather conditions. They also made sure that in our laser-like focus to avoid a night swim in the Pacific, we didn’t miss the Big Picture stuff, like half-hourly station checks, or the descent, approach, and landing checklists.

We all kept a constant watch on our fuel situation. To make sure fatigue and stress hadn’t taken a toll on our cognitive abilities, we each did our own individual calculations, then cross-checked them with each other. We finally determined we had enough to fly supersonic the last half hour or so.

We headed directly towards Hickam and landed without further incident, just as the sun was coming up over Diamond Head. I pulled off the runway, shut down, and we all scrambled out.

B-1B cockpit
Not a comfortable place to sit and wait for a fire to break out.

The tanker had relayed our emergency status and all our associated vital statistics to the appropriate agencies in Hawaii. We had both Hickam AFB and civilian Honolulu International Airport emergency crews waiting for us. The smell was still so bad that when the USAF crash team went up into the plane after we shut down, they also gagged on it.

My home unit ended up sending some B-1B specialists from Ellsworth out to investigate. After tearing out a lot of the jet’s interior, they discovered the source was an environmental control unit, basically an air conditioner, that’s isolated in a space under the pilot’s seat.

It had essentially eaten itself alive. It’s got a blower that spins at about a zillion RPM; its internals had failed, which caused prolonged metal-on-metal contact, turning it into a smoldering pile of molten junk.

Knowing that we probably weren’t in danger of exploding, or burning to death, at night, over 10,000 ft-deep water, after all, doesn’t change the fact that it’s an experience I’d rather not repeat. What’s that old saying? “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I don’t think there were any in our B-1B that night either.

Out of the many, many lessons learned that generated from that mission, my top four are often repeated, but proved pertinent in this case:

  • Always expect the unexpected.
  • Always have a Plan B… and a C… and a D… (and having a tanker is nice, too).
  • Crew Resource Management isn’t just another catch phrase, buzz word, or annoying acronym the FAA wants us to memorize. The most valuable asset you can have in an emergency, like in combat, is a professional, disciplined, well-trained crew: mine was phenomenal.
  • The concept of CRM (and Single-pilot Resource Management) includes using invaluable help from resources outside your own fuselage. My biggest regret from this experience was that I didn’t get to buy the crew of my KC-10 “wingman” a round at the O Club.

16 Comments

  • Tom,

    Great article and memory jogger.

    Had a similar problem with smoke/fumes in the cockpit of a B-52 at Loring AFB, ME one December day shortly after takeoff and ended up landing at 410,000 lbs, a wee bit more than the normal 290,000 lbs or less. Our problem was an over heated capacitor in the left load circuit breaker panel behind my ejection seat. Those emergency numbers we computed for landing after takeoff before every sortie, I was told by my IP at Castle AFB, CA I would never need, well he was wrong. Always be ready for Mr. Murphy becoming an unexpected crew member on your crew. I totally agree with your 4 points at the end.

  • Wow, huge ‘stressor’ flight and one NEVER forgotten with many key instructional points along the way. Great job Tom to you and BOTH crews.

  • Great story of “maintaining an even strain” in the face of something cooking in the cockpit. Had a short or two over the years that were easily isolated and one smoke in the cockpit, that was the scariest as I was lifting from an elevated pad in the heart of a city… That too was an A/C blower (new) that ate itself giving me face-full of acrid smoke and a concerned crew. Almost dumped a bottle of halon into the vent, it did go out after de-energizing. The mechanics were grateful I didn’t.

    But I wasn’t at 25,000 feet over a heartless sea, at night, getting ready to take a rocket ride into the black void without a plane… Great story and thank you for your service, but you should pay us for getting to operate those amazing aircraft. Thanks again.

  • Great story Tom. As a fellow Boneman, I can relate, but never lost a pack in the middle of the Pacific at night! That jet loves to keep us on our toes… great LL’s for GA or jets.

  • Hi Tom, et al.
    Thank you, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for sharing that incredible True-To-Life flying experience. While I can NOT share any as ‘exciting’ as yours Tom; I have one that is almost as exciting. I am a retired Aeronautical Engineer, pilot that flew Piper Cub, T-28, T-33, and B-47 aircraft in the US Air Force; T-33, F-84, and F86H aircraft in the Mass. ANG: and owned and flew a Cessna 182 in the civilian sector… all for 50+ years; and now mentor and dialog with youngsters and ‘oldsters’ on many aviation topics. I was completing a ‘high-angle’ dive in a F-86H after firing a rocket at the ground target ‘graying out’. When vision returned, I looked the cockpit ‘G’ meter. Redline for the F-86H is 8.3 G’s… the ‘tell-tale’ showed over 10 G’s. after landing back the Mass. ANG base; the airman that parked me came up to me in the cockpit , “… you see those ‘rivets’ on the ramp out in front of your aircraft…. you just trashed this aircraft….” bent the aircraft ~20 degrees and did NOT come apart… Thank YOU North American that designed and built the F86H soooo WELL! Amen, AMEN… AMEM!

  • Oh Yea! Hey Tom, I would like to share and trade stories with you sometime. How can we do that? My telephone number is, (206) 382-3643, Better yet, email me your telephone number and a few dates and times that are good for you; and I WILL telephone you.
    Cheers,
    Joel

  • In the early days of transition from B-47s, B-52Bs were blowing up in flight from Casle AFB, CA, I got the call to meet an aircraft on landing to evaluate a fuel leak, get them going without shutting down, to continue the transition training mission. When they stopped on the taxiway, fuel was running out near the forward landing gear. I climbed into the wheel well and found fuel pouring from the center wing tank into the still running four bleed air driven alternators and two crew members trying to mop it up with a wool GI blanket.
    And they were mad at me for making them shut down and cancell the rest of the mission. CCTS was a fun place in those days

  • Great story of courage under fire and the ultimate use of and success of Crew Resource Management (CRM). I now know why the training for such a capable aircraft is a lengthy process and the crews are held to such high standards. I’d love to fly in the B1B or any Air Force aircraft. The cockpit and instrument panel are just amazing. No wonder you needed a co-pilot. Thanks for including a picture of them. Special thanks for serving in the Air Force in such a crucial position for our nation’s security and in the support of all of us fighting on the ground.

    Gary
    US Army (ret.)

  • In 1970, our crew was headed home to Plattsburgh after an Arc Lite tour. Actually on our way to Homestead to drop off the plane. Planned for a tanker ride back home. We lost the entire aircraft electrical system at altitude about half-way between Hawaii and California around 0300. All we had were those teeny peanut bulbs, altimeter, air speed, whiskey compass and radios as long as the batteries lasted. Io was the Nav, and started navigating with what little I had. The crew went through the checklists. We called SAC, who finally admitted they had no solution. They connected us with Boeing, who told us an electrical restart was pretty risky. We finally got an old-time BUFF instructor at Castle who said to give it a shot as we really had no alternative. We couldn’t transfer fuel, which is critical in a BUFF, or change tanks without power. The terrific guys upstairs brought back three of the busses which was enough power to move fuel around, get me my nav gear back, lower gear and flaps for a successful landing at Castle. Turns out one of the generators trashed itself, and took down all of the electrical busses when it went away. The maintenance crew at Castle repaired the problem overnight and we had an uneventful flight the next day.

  • After reading about your flight, I believe that I would’ve done a couple of things differently. Having flown that area from Adak, Alaska to Midway, then Wake Island and to Guam, I would have thought that you could have used those Pacific islands as alternates. Plus, Wake Island has excellent fishing. The aircraft I was ferrying to Vietnam had rather short legs, no autopilot, and our navigation equipment consisted of a Tacan and an ADF of which there were no stations except when you got near the destination. Until that point, we were basically dead reckoning, needle, ball, and airspeed with our whiskey compass adjusted for variation and deviation. We were out of communications for most of the trip except as I said, near the destination islands.

    Since you did not have any good idea of the problem, if it had been me, I would have been thinking, WHAT’S NEXT? Consequently, I believe that I would’ve stayed close to the tanker. If I bailed out, I would like to have someone watch me go down and note the position for rescue.

    Of course, you probably had an autopilot attached to the GPS which pointed to the destination without you even needing to hand fly the airplane. Flying without a helmet and mask on, WOW, do you have any openings.

    I always enjoyed being up there, alone, and in control.

    • Great points: In fact, we had passed relatively close to Wake Island a couple hundred miles earlier. If it happened again today, that would be my first choice; unfortunately, it wasn’t available to us that night.

      Even though the Navy left Midway in 1997, Henderson Field was/is still a piece of concrete. Our wx avoidance wanderings took us a bit south of a direct line between Wake & HI, so the ‘geometry’ to get there, plus some other issues, led us to reject it as an option as well.

      As far as staying with the tanker goes; my main concern was minimizing the time we were exposed to the possibly toxic fumes.
      He had the capability to keep track of our exact location without maintaining a visual formation-at night-so pushing out ahead of him didn’t bother me too much.

      Thanks! Tom

  • Hello Tom,
    I truly enjoyed your write-up on this memorable B1 flight. Kudos to you and crew members for staying cool, technical and resolute through this ordeal. It is hard to imagine what goes through your mind at night way over the Pacific.

    A side aspect of this experience may be the unique link between the brain and the sense of smell.

    While in no way serious as your problem was, here is our little story. We were making our way back to Montreal from the Maritimes in our Cessna 150, over Northern New Brunswick. All I could see was solid bush underneath and I was truly looking forward to the next sign of civilization, a village or a road. Then I got a good whiff of solvent. Now the only solvent a 150 carries is normally aviation fuel (was it 80/87?). But that wasn’t it. Something like acetone. I turned to see my lovely lady carefully putting on nail polish (or was it removing?)… A smile, a kiss, my heart beat came down, and all was well. There was even a village on the horizon. Amazingly, the same story happened 10 years later in a Lake, when the owner’s girl friend did the same. Not so eventful the second time.

    Thanks for these stories.

  • Remembering back when the pocket on the left sleeve was used to stow a pack of Luckies and a Zippo I’ reminded of the time a friend who was a smoker was on a Transatlantic deployment lit up and after a couple of drags dropped his lighted cigarette and had it roll under the ejection seat on the wooden floor of the Phantom. He watched a curl of smoke come up between his legs as he thought of the pyro devices in that area used to power the ejection seat out of the cockpit About that time his back seater said I smell smoke–what’s going on up there. My pal explained the predicament, and the reply was for God’s sake, dump the cabin pressure and make sure you’re not on 100% oxygen. He did, and the smoke dissipated and stopped. No more Luckies for that hop!

  • Hi Folks,

    I very appreciate all the comments; my apologies for not responding sooner to each one individually.

    One of the challenges with sharing these experiences is balancing “writing a book” vs. “cutting to the chase”. There were certainly more lessons learned from this mission; some applicable to crew aircraft in general, and some unique to the B-1B.

    When asked, I always characterize the Bone as “the most complicated flying machine on the planet” (well, maybe SECOND to the then still-flying Space Shuttle). As an instructor pilot, check airman, and a squadron leader (at the time, I was the Operations Officer), I also took a lot of pride in my aircraft systems knowledge: To that end, this event was quite humbling. I was fortunate to have three very smart guys with me.

    (Of course, ALL the men & women that fly in the USAF are very smart folks!!!)

    I also can’t lavish enough praise on the tanker crew: They made it abundantly clear they’d do whatever was necessary to get US on the ground, safely; possibly putting themselves at more risk than they should have.

    Sounds like several of you probably have some pretty interesting stories yourselves (C.West, Greg, “B” Wallace, Joel, BJ, Mort, Dick, and yes….Dan!) with great lessons learned; please consider fleshing them out a bit & sharing with the rest of us!

    John Zimmerman & the AFJ staff will help you polish it up and make it “readable”.

    Thanks,
    Tom Curran

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