A scary situation in the cockpit!

“Fire, Captain”! The co-pilot yelled. He turned around to look at the smoke billowing out from the rear of the airplane into the cabin. The passengers were screaming and trying to cover their noses from the acrid smell permeating throughout the cabin. He turned to me with fear in his eyes and repeated, “Cap, we’re on fire!”

As I turned to look back into the cabin, Alan, my co-pilot, turned back around and feverishly started opening his window. I immediately shouted at him to stop! Unfortunately, it was too late. He had managed to lower his window a few inches, and he instantly was engulfed by smoke seeking the only opening, and he blacked out in seconds from the dense smoke flowing past his face.

From the smell of the smoke that swirled past us, I was able to identify it as an electrical fire and immediately hit the master switch on the overhead panel and prayed that it would help reduce the threat that would engulf the passengers, crew and the entire aircraft. I also turned off all the radios on the instrument panel and had a moment’s confusion about my next action.

We were flying in a Twin Otter, DHC-6-100, and only 8 minutes into our flight to Bartica, a small village South West of Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana. To make matters worse, we were in a total whiteout, rain, and light turbulence. We had 14 passengers, two crew, and cargo on board. Bartica, our destination, was only a 15-minute flight from our departure, Timehri international airport under normal conditions.

It was a runway that had to be operated under visual flight rules (VFR) as Bartica was not an airport approved for instrument approach operations. Faced with the problem of having no way to continue to our destination due to the fire, the deteriorating weather conditions, and no communications, we were now in serious difficulty.

As I was deliberating possible actions, I risked a quick glance toward the cargo compartment and noticed a lessening of the smoke coming into the cabin.

I was trying to deal with many factors simultaneously while maintaining level flight around 2.000 feet. Fortunately, there were no obstacles in the area or high ground, so that was not an added concern.

Still maintaining course for Bartica, I noticed that Alan was slowly regaining his senses as the smoke lessened. I reached over and grabbed his shoulder. “Alan, close your window,” I said.

He opened his eyes and looked at me. “What Cap,” he asked groggily. “Close your window,” I repeated. He managed to shut the window and asked if we were still on fire? I told him that it looked as if the fire was confined to the electrical bay near the baggage compartment.

His eyes were all reddened from the smoke and teary-eyed as well. He looked back into the cabin and saw that the smoke had almost totally dissipated, and the passengers were somewhat calmer. He asked, “what do we do now?”

I said to him, “Our options are pretty limited. We are in Instrument Flight conditions, with no visibility, rain, and light turbulence. We have no alternative but to turn back to Timehri.”

Now, however, I was faced with new challenges. How to communicate my problem and how to let the tower know my intentions. My prior knowledge of aircraft equipment came into play. Before I became a pilot, I was an aircraft mechanic for many years and pretty knowledgeable about any aircraft I flew. I felt the smoke came from an electrical fire in the rear of the airplane where all the radio equipment was installed.