Ask the pilot

When a routine flight is plunged into weirdness after the crew smells smoke, how to deal with a possible emergency -- and a plane full of foreign tourists.

Published June 6, 2008 10:57AM (EDT)

It's the winter of 1994, and for now at least the payroll checks are clearing and business is good. On a clear, bitingly cold evening we're readying for a scheduled flight from Boston up to Charlottetown, in the Canadian Maritimes.

Charlottetown is the capital of Prince Edward Island, PEI, the smallest and maybe the most charming of Canada's provinces. We do a lot of flying up there, carrying snowbirds down to Florida through our hub at Logan. Our route will take us over Maine and New Brunswick, and across the Bay of Fundy -- close to where Swissair will splash to its fate four years from now.

It's 8 o'clock as the final passengers are coming up the stairs of our 19-seater. The weather is icy but clear. The sky seems as black as the vacuum of space -- that New England January darkness that falls with an almost palpable heaviness.

Patrick Smith, born Patrick R. Santosuosso of Revere, Mass., a fourth-generation descendant of Neapolitan olive growers who changed his name to impress a girl, is sitting in the left-hand pilot seat. My first officer, brand-new, is Mike, a former Navy fighter pilot from San Francisco whose wife has recently left him for a Chilean businessman. I am 27 years old, and he is 26. A couple of young hotshots, you could say -- though Mike, who is tall and square-jawed, his thick black hair closely cropped, looks the pilot part substantially more than I do.

Our plane is the Fairchild Metroliner, a long, skinny turboprop known for its tight quarters and annoying idiosyncrasies. The plane's derisive nicknames include "lawn dart" and, if you'll pardon me, "the Texas tampon," in tribute to its profile and factory of origin. Most of us call it simply "the Metro." At Fairchild, down in San Antonio, the guys with the pocket protectors were faced with a challenge: How to take 19 passengers and make them as uncomfortable as possible? Answer: Stuff them side-by-side into a 6-foot-diameter aluminum tube. Attach a pair of the loudest turbine engines ever made, the Garrett TPE-331, and go easy on the soundproofing. For the crew, provide the tiniest, most ergonomically vicious cockpit possible. Remove the autopilot. All of this for a mere $2.5 million a copy.

(Somewhere out there is a retired Fairchild engineer feeling very insulted. He deserves it.)

As captain of this beastly machine it is my duty not only to safely deliver passengers to their destinations but to hide in shame from them as they arrive at the aircraft, chortling and spewing insults: "Does this thing really fly?" and "Man, who did you piss off?"

The answer to that first question is, sort of. The Metro is equipped with a pair of minimally functioning ailerons and a control wheel in need of a placard marking it for decorative purposes only. In other words, the plane is sluggish, slow to respond. Crosswind landings can be an adventure.

The typical flight is very, um, interactive. The Metro is too small for a cockpit door, allowing for 19 back-seat drivers whose gazes spend more time glued to the instruments than ours do. I have doctored up one of my chart binders with these prying eyes in mind. On the front cover, in oversize stick-on letters, I have put: "HOW TO FLY"; I stow the book on the floor in full view of the first few rows. During approach I'll pick it up and flip through the pages, eliciting some hearty laughs -- or shrieks.

The view of the cockpit is even more entertaining if, as occasionally is the case, somebody has spit-glued a magazine photo across the radar screen. Our radar units, mounted in the middle of the panel and visible all the way to the aft bulkhead, look like miniature TV sets, and are used to detect storms and precipitation. On clear autumn days when we zip up the coast between Boston and Portland, Maine, or from the Cape down to Newark, N.J., they are switched off. Those with lively imaginations might clip out a ridiculous picture from a newspaper or magazine and adhere it to the empty screen. A man in a chef's hat carrying a wedding cake, I recall, was one memorable choice.

As a final insult, the designers made sure there is absolutely no room for pilots to store their equipment. Our books -- leather binders full of maps and instrument landing charts -- have to be stacked on the floor near the center pedestal between the two seats. During takeoff they'll sometimes slide beneath the curtain and go skidding down the aisle.

Add a couple of pornographic magazines to those books and charts, and you can understand just how embarrassing things can get. I'd like to tell you such a mishap is apocryphal, except I know the person it happened to. Let's call him Eric, and pretend he was from Lewiston, Maine. That's the same Eric who thought it would be amusing to dangle a pair of red velvet dice from the overhead standby compass. That one had customers giggling, pointing, slapping him on the back and sending letters to the Federal Aviation Administration. Poor Eric lost a paycheck, and earned a blemish on his record that would have recruiters at the major airlines affixing the wrong color Stickies to his résumé.

As you can doubtless tell, things are a bit faster and looser, which is to say younger, at the regional carriers. We are 20-something kids, many of us making poverty-level wages, sitting at the controls of million-dollar aircraft. The incongruity of it all can make us silly.

But back to our flight to Charlottetown.

Our Metro, registered N61NE, is painted red and gray in the uniform of our corporate big brother and supplier of passengers, Northwest Airlines. Below the cockpit window near the main cabin door, it says "Spirit of Partnership" in both English and Russian. A couple of years earlier, this same plane completed a round-the-world publicity flight with an American and Russian crew, the gist of which is now immortalized in white stenciled letters. Beneath the English inscription, the Cyrillic figures of the Russian alphabet are reminiscent of the old CCCP jerseys of Soviet hockey players.

It is our tradition prior to every takeoff to dedicate the flight, in a kind of pre-takeoff prayer, to whichever attractive female celebrity is idling in our lust-addled minds at the time. Tonight, our journey to PEI has been launched in honor of Janine Turner, cherub-faced beauty of TV's "Northern Exposure."

"Northeast 3762, cleared for takeoff, two-two right," I acknowledge. "Here's to Janine," answers Mike, slowly bringing the power levers forward.

Lifting off from Logan's Runway 22R, we climb quickly in the frigid air and turn out over the coast. Mike is flying the plane while I handle ATC, twisting a few knobs and gazing into the boreal skyscape. We level at 19,000 feet. In the cold, clear sky, the whitish halos of several cities are visible. Boston, Providence, Worcester, Manchester, Portland.

The lights of the rocky coast of Maine, around the area of Kennebunkport, are off to the left, when I first notice the smoke. I smell it first, followed by Mike about 10 seconds later.

"Um," I say.

"Smells like insulation," says Mike. He's talking about wiring -- the burning of the rubbery insulation that wires are wrapped in. Electrical smoke is very distinct -- acrid, with a glint of ammonia. It's hard to explain, but if there could be such a thing as a "high-pitched" odor, it would be that of electrical smoke. It's not a smell you generally like to discover in an airplane at night over the water.

The stink is faint, but it's unequivocally a stink. It seems to be coming from a circuit breaker panel just to my left -- an encasement of wires at roughly the height of my armrest and running aft behind the cockpit.

I run my hands across the panel, sticking my face into the dusty plastic to find the trouble spot. While I sniff around like a dog, my thumb comes to rest on a big metal switch, a lever almost, called an electrical bus transfer. A half-second later I'm yelling, "Shit!" and yanking my arm away. That switch is as hot as an iron.

"Mike, this transfer switch is messed up."


"Something's not right in there."

"What's it, hot?"



There are no flames, no noises, and nothing beyond the ordinary on the instruments in front of us. No alarms, lights, failed meters or dancing needles. There's not even any smoke, exactly -- no curling wisps to trace to their source. The problem is teasing and totally unseen. But something's wrong and there's a nose-wrinkling stink and my burned thumb to prove it. "Get out the book," I say to Mike.

With that I will excuse the reader from the technical babble of the checklists and procedural esoterica that follows. I'll only make mention of how different a heat-of-battle problem feels versus the ones pilots grow accustomed to in the simulators. It's always new and different when the show is live. There's no audience, for one thing -- no churlish instructor hovering over our shoulders to congratulate or cajole us either way. Neither is there a reset button. After an incident, those who listen to the black boxes' confessional might detect only a perfunctory recitation of a checklist or a flawless execution of good sense. They cannot taste the adrenaline or feel the pangs of worry, for those exist only in the guts and minds of the crew, often as unobservable as the strange odor Mike and I are preoccupied with. (Though other times not: voices raised and breaking, curses shouted, a situation gone to hell -- the kind of thing even the most hardened investigator, like a cop at a really bad crime scene, never gets used to.)

Fortunately, tonight, there's little drama and nothing for the tapes. The smoke remains invisible and undetectable to anyone else on board. In fact the scent grows increasingly faint, sparing us the discomfort, if not the indignity, of putting on oxygen masks. In a matter of minutes it has all but vanished.

What has happened, however, is we've turned the plane 180 degrees and headed back to Logan.

"Look, Mike," I say. "I really don't think there's a fire in there, but something is burned out. That transfer switch shouldn't be like that. How about we head back to Boston?"

"Sure," says Mike without the vaguest hint of emotion. He is wearing a blue cardigan, and at 6-foot-2 seems oversized in our cramped cockpit. I'm still partially hunched over from sniffing at the circuit breakers. Mike looks down at me and raises a dark eyebrow. "Sure," he repeats.

"If anything changes we'll duck into Portland or Portsmouth. There are airports the whole way."


There is talk of declaring an emergency. In the press and media, "emergency landing" is a catch-all for virtually any precautionary landing or turn-back, but for air crews it has particular meaning and consequences. With certain problems -- an engine fire, for instance -- emergency declarations are mandatory. Other times it is left to the captain's discretion. This is one of those times, and neither of us feels the situation is sufficiently urgent.

Nevertheless, I double-check the pressure on the portable fire extinguisher behind us. I unbuckle it from the harness and place it near me on the floor. Then I call our dispatcher on company frequency and let him know what's going on. He puts a mechanic on the line. The mechanic asks what the trouble is, and basically agrees with our assessment.

Air traffic control is looking for info. "Why are you turning back?" they want to know. "How much fuel have you got? How many souls on board?"

I was waiting for that. The souls thing comes up even in the most mildly abnormal situations. The galley doesn't work and they're asking about "souls on board." And it isn't passengers or people they're concerned with, it's souls. The intent, should the worst occur, is to have an accurate count of all infants, crew members and other sentient entities perhaps not listed on the manifest. But still, the overtones of anyone's inquiry about souls needs no discussion, and suffice to say it has always made me uneasy. It's for the firemen.

It happens there are 19 souls in the cabin behind us -- a full complement. And these 19, belted into their gray leather seats, need to know what the hell is going on. While Mike is guiding us expertly on a southwesterly course, back toward runway 22L at Logan, I decide to make an announcement. I rehearse its finer points a couple of times in my head: Slight electrical problem. No danger. Turning back as a precaution. Perfect weather at Logan. Back to Canada as soon as we can. No mention of Janine Turner.

I pick up the microphone to make my speech. But wait, there's music playing. Shit, Mike, we left the tape running. The Spirit of Partnership, like most of our Metros, has a built-in, automobile-style cassette player through which all regulatory announcements are taken care of by a sober-sounding fellow with a voice like James Earl Jones. Side A is the before-takeoff safety demo. Later, we flip to Side B for the pre-landing spiel. With the tape decks on hand, I sometimes carry albums to work. Out on the apron between flights, I listen to music and have lunch.

Every now and then I leave the music playing by mistake. Once we're up, neither I nor the first officer can hear a note of it, strapped with headsets and busy reading "HOW TO FLY." Surely some people dig it. What's more consoling to passengers, already agitated and uncomfortable, than belligerent rock music, especially when mixed with the din of thousand-horsepower engines? En route to Burlington, Vt., one evening, the noise was enough to prompt a weary-looking businessman to stick his head into the cockpit and ask, "Could you please turn that racket off?" Dammit, the tape! I reached for the player, then paused with my finger on the switch and asked him, "You mean the music, or the engines?"

I punch out the tape, pause a few seconds, and make my announcement. I am pleased at how crisp, fluid and tight it comes out. I congratulate myself. Nice job. However, when I look behind me into the cabin, I don't see that look of collective nervousness I expect. I don't see uncertain calm and tentative grins of confidence in my and Mike's expertise. I suddenly realize that of the 19 souls back there, not one of them has a working knowledge of the English language.

And what do they speak? What would you expect a Maritime-bound group of passengers to speak, if not English? French? Acadian Creole?

How about Japanese? Yes, Japanese. We are carrying a Japanese package tour from Boston to Prince Edward Island. Behind me are 19 Japanese faces nodding and smiling ear-to-ear, as if I'd told them we've all won the lottery. A man in the back row gives me a thumbs up.

Mike laughs.

Next week: Part 2 -- What brings a group of Japanese tourists to the most diminutive of Canadian provinces?

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business