Three out of four ain’t bad—unless you’re in a Lockheed Electra

September 11, 1996, will always remain in my memory.

We had recently departed Terre Haute, Indiana, and were now cruising eastbound toward the Atlantic Coast at Flight Level 210. A young captain (me, at 40 years old) was still on his proving runs with a check airman when there was a problem. We had an engine fire warning on engine number four.

I could recall another engine fire warning on engine number three at precisely V1 (takeoff decision speed) when departing Kodiak, Alaska, the previous February. I was still a co-pilot then and it was my leg, so I would continue flying until after we had completed the engine fire checklist above 1,500 feet (Kodiak is barely above sea level).

After completing all the checklist items to extinguish the apparent fire on this day, we could not get the fire warning to stop—even after shooting the only two fire extinguisher bottles available to the engine. Paul had taken over as pilot in command during this very real emergency because he was the senior captain and I was just a new captain on my proving runs. So I asked my flight crew the Billy Graham question: “Are you ready to die?”

That would not be the first time that a Lockheed L-188 lost a wing in flight and spun into the ground. The Electra had problems with something called whirl mode until it was fixed by engineers from Douglas, Lockheed, and Boeing with something called the LEAP Modification.

So I prayed and gave the situation to God. My mind cleared immediately and I could now recall how my father often spoke at dinner regarding the wonderful challenges of dealing with ailing airplanes in flight as a flight engineer. He was very happy and quite satisfied with the challenges he faced dealing with problems in flight.

Wright Pat
Wright-Pat is a pretty noticeable landmark for a pilot in distress.

I asked my check airman, Paul, if he wanted me to get the charts out so we could find our exact position and of course he said yes. But then I recalled that I have two eyeballs connected to my brain, and both were working. I looked down at the surrounding terrain and noticed that the Miami River was right underneath us, along with Interstate 75 gradually descending straight but sloping downward toward the Miami River area of Dayton, Ohio.

I started laughing. Somewhat irritated, Paul asked me, “Campbell, why are you laughing?”

I replied, “Who put the Miami River in Dayton, Ohio?”

Then Paul pointed straight ahead and asked what I saw. The massive expanse of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base lay straight ahead. Paul wanted to know if I could see the US Air Force Museum. There it was, slightly right of straight ahead and slightly down.

Having located our position as being very close to Dayton, Ohio, and having already completed the checklist for an engine fire, I began to contemplate what I had learned in Zantop International Airlines ground school under the fantastic tutelage of Billy Weber. Billy Weber had been the best flight engineer student during my father’s initial flight engineer class at Eastern Airlines in the fall of 1957, according to my father.

I simply recalled that Billy Weber had taught us that a flame cannot be propagated at an airspeed of 140 knots or more. So I translated that knowledge into a recommendation that we fly at maximum forward airspeed at any given altitude and temperature, better known as the variable airspeed of barber pole. We had no clue how fast air was actually moving underneath the engine nacelles because there is no airspeed indication from those locations. So the only thing we could do is fly at maximum airspeed for the airframe.

“Paul, let’s tell air traffic control that we will exceed 250 knots below 10,000 feet,” I said. The response by air traffic control to our declared emergency was eventually a frightened and shaking voice on their radio transmissions to us. (There was no airspeed limit above 10,000 feet of altitude.)

I also recommended that we fly at barber pole until we had to slow down for the ILS at the outer marker.

We had declared an emergency and explained the engine fire indication situation to Air Traffic Control. That would give us the latitude to disregard any applicable regulations where we had excellent reason to disobey regulations. Of course, there are good reasons why airplanes cannot usually exceed 250 knots below 10,000 feet, including a plethora of slow-moving traffic. But an engine fire indication is a great reason to go faster.

Electra
An engine fire in a Lockheed Electra is a serious problem.

Then I recalled from ground school another situation. Someone had thrown a cigarette into a trash bin in the lavatory of an Air Canada DC-9, causing the cabin to catch on fire. The airplane landed safely and stopped on the runway, where they should have evacuated. Instead, everyone—including Curtis Mathes, inventor of the large screen TV—died in the flashover and all-consuming fire. So did many others.

“Paul, let’s ask Dayton Tower to get the fire trucks to chase us as we land and then report if they see the slightest amount of smoke or fire.” I thought we should go down the ropes with the airplane stopped on the runway if the fire trucks reported we had smoke or fire as they chased us during our landing. Then I explained to Paul the Air Canada loss of life due to a fire. He agreed.

By now we were pretty much convinced we had a false engine fire indication, so that caused a little back and forth as to whether or not we really needed the fire trucks to chase us once we landed, but we settled on asking for help.

We landed without further incident. Fire trucks chased us down the runway on a parallel taxiway and reported no sign of smoke or fire. We taxied off of the runway to our normal ramp and performed a normal shut down instead of stopping on the runway and exiting the cockpit down escape ropes. We climbed down the ladder as usual.

I was told that I would be commended in writing for handling the situation well. Paul felt that I had been very helpful.

12 Comments

  • Great story, well done! When there is an unknown fire, get down, fast. The other accident to reference on unknown fire conditions is the Swissair MD-11 in the
    Atlantic off Halifax. They had wiring burning inside the walls of the cabin. The crew issued a “Pan” call which tells something about their regard for the severity of the problem.
    Then, concerned about landing on one of the long runways at CYHZ overweight, they turned away from the airport to dump fuel. Tragic mistake.

    • A flight engineer and aircraft mechanic saw the video about the Swussair MD-11 accident caused by a hasty installation of an onboard gambling system with no crew intervention off switch. He said he would have ripped the false outer wall off and extinguished the fire.

  • A very interesting well-written article AND author biography.

    One question on each.

    1. The article ends with reporting that the fire crews saw no sign of smoke or fire, and that the crew didn’t do an emergency evacuation. That implies a false fire alarm. What caused it?

    2. The biography ends with David being laid off from his job as a DC-9 copilot after 9/11. What was his flying career after that?

    • What caused the false engine fire warning? A defective fire detection loop, according to mechanics. This was never

      David’s flying career was at two different airlines, the second of which was the DC-9 co-pilot.

      • The fire warning loop was made with fail-safe engineering that was supposed to prevent a false engine fire warning.

  • “So I asked my flight crew the Billy Graham question: “Are you ready to die?””

    Sir, with all due respect, were you being rhetorical with this statement? Did you REALLY ask your crewmembers this question?

  • Seems like no matter where our aviation paths have taken us or when, the stories, and adventures, and there were many, we all remember best are of our younger days at Zantop. DC-6 and Electra, 1977 to 1985.
    I remember well that aluminum ladder and the rope at 2 a.m. in the ice and snow. Thanks for the memories.

  • Thanks David for rejuvenating all the great memories flying for the old man at Zantop, like Claude I was there with him and a lot of other young pilots cutting our teeth flying those wonderful big 4 engine freighters.

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