by Chuck Cook
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2019/January 2020 Issue
This is the story of my inflight fire in the cockpit and crash landing of my 1954 T-28 Trojan, which occurred on August 23, 2018. It is also my story of survival, which began on that day. I write this story to share what happened to me and to share some afterthoughts in an effort to encourage other pilots to be prepared for such emergencies and possibly prevent such a tragedy from happening to them.
On that day, it was beautiful VFR weather and I was right where I like to be, in a formation flight with my buddies en route to a formation flyover event. About 15 minutes into the flight, the generator fail light came on, so I decided to separate from the formation and return to my home airport – Anoka County-Blaine Airport (KANE) in Blaine, Minnesota.
After turning the aircraft toward home, I sensed a slight smell of something burning. I radioed my flight lead and asked if there were fires burning out west and he replied yes. (In the Minneapolis area with prevailing westerly winds, it is not uncommon to smell the smoke and see haze in the air from fires occurring in California or Canada.) The smell was slight and very soon dissipated, so I did not give it much further thought. I then switched DC power from battery/generator to battery only. In this aircraft when you have a generator failure and the DC power switch is in the battery/generator position, you have automatic load shed of the secondary bus. When DC power is switched to the battery-only position, you re-energize the secondary bus, which provides power for many systems, including the speed brake, landing gear position indicators, and, on some aircraft, the radios. My direct flight home took me through Saint Paul Class D airspace, which required communication with Saint Paul tower, and I also had to pick up ATIS and talk to tower at my home airport. (To enable speed brake operation, the landing gear operation and for radio communication, I chose to leave DC power on in the battery-only position, rather than in the off position). Other than the battery fail light, the flight back to Anoka was only about 15 minutes and was uneventful.
Upon reaching Anoka, I entered the standard break-to-land. (For those not familiar wth the brake-to-land approach, it is a landing maneuver used by the military and by civilian formation pilots. This technique involves flying over the threshold of the runway at 1,000 feet above the ground (AGL), banking 60 degrees and flying a 360-degree descending circle to land at the threshold of the runway). I then reduced power to 20 inches of manifold pressure, banked 60 degrees and deployed the speed brake.
Immediately there was thick billowing smoke filling the cockpit. I opened the canopy to clear the smoke and announced “I have smoke in the cockpit” to the tower. Right away I knew I had a serious problem, but feeling that I was too low to bail out, I elected to continue the turn to get the plane on the ground ASAP. I had to hold my face up to the slipstream on the right side of the canopy to keep forward visibility and avoid breathing in the smoke. In short order, I was also being sprayed with a fluid, which at the time, I thought was fuel. The spray was very heavy and was even getting up inside the visor of my helmet. At 180 degrees of turn and level altitude and reaching abeam the runway threshold, I dropped the gear and flaps. That’s when the fire started.
The fire was ferocious and first came up between the left sidewall and the left side of my seat bucket. It was like an intense blowtorch. Soon, the fire was coming up between my legs and reached above the height of my face. Despite the fire, I held the stick to fly the airplane and I continued the circle towards the threshold of the runway. Next, the fire was going up my face shield and burning my face.
At very short final, I realized I could not continue the flare and landing. I felt I was burning alive and needed to do a controlled crash and get out of the aircraft. At about 100 feet AGL, I was veering left of course and I saw the threshold of the runway in my peripheral vision. At this point I was losing my ability to see, so I decided to push the stick forward and drive the plane home.
I do remember I had some intuition that I would somehow survive the crash. I don’t remember retarding the throttle and I don’t remember the exact point of impact.
I remember waking up to the sound of silence, but I don’t remember exiting the cockpit. An eyewitness to the crash confirmed that I did get myself out of the cockpit. This eyewitness was driving by on a nearby highway and told me he pulled over and dialed 911. Then he looked up and said that he saw a man on the ground just outside the cockpit, kicking his feet trying to put out the fire on his legs and shoes. I do remember lying on the ground kicking my feet and also trying to roll over because the sheepskin liner on my parachute was also burning by the left side of my face. This gentleman, along with another good Samaritan, who was also driving by, slipped through the airport security fence and ran about 500 feet to my rescue. These two men, along with a lineman from the local FBO who also arrived on the scene, pulled me away from the burning aircraft wreckage. The wing had separated from the fuselage, so when I stepped out of the cockpit, I fell to the ground and broke my left forearm in a compound fracture. I had collapsed about 5 feet from the fuselage, but was conscious.
I asked one of these eyewitnesses if he had to, could he have pulled me from the cockpit. He stated; “no, it was already too engulfed in flames by the time we arrived.” Immediately after they pulled me a short distance from the plane, I heard an explosion. Immediately they had to pull me further away from the aircraft. The lineman later told me it was the left-wing fuel tank. He said; “there was shrapnel and fire from the explosion and the area where you were previously lying moments before, was now engulfed in flames.”
At this point I was going into shock. They tell me I asked for water and I told them my arm hurt. I was able to give them my wife’s name and phone number, and that’s the last thing I remember for two months. I was airlifted to the Minneapolis Hennepin County Medical Center where they treated me for 2nd and 3rd- degree burns over 40% of my body, and some 4th-degree burns on my right hand and leg.
As for my medical treatments, they kept me in intensive care in a drug-induced coma for two months while they did 20 skin graft surgeries and numerous other procedures and also stabilized the compound fractures in my left arm. Early on, my survival was very questionable. I spent a total of four months in the hospital. As of this writing, it has been 14 months since the date of my accident and I have been in rehabilitation therapy since the day after the accident. I am told I will have this therapy for at least another year.
This level of burn damage has many implications. I had to learn how to walk again starting with a walker and I am now getting some limited use of my left hand. My right hand suffered significant burns and doctors had to amputate one half inch off of each finger of this hand, and to date, it has almost no function. I also suffered severe burns to my face, which now has permanent disfigurement. At this point it looks like I will have an additional 10 or more surgeries.
Despite my injuries, I am thankful for surviving and for the many functions I do have. I am also thankful for the many people responsible for saving my life. This includes among others, all of the many first responders and also the extensive medical team at Hennepin County Medical Center. I have also been blessed with an extraordinary support system. My wife, my family and my many friends have been here for me and have helped me with my many needs without fail. I attribute my ability to maintain a good spirit and my motivation in my ongoing recovery process to this extensive, loving support group.
Regarding the nature or source of the smoke and fire, we may never know. Upon impact, the airplane broke apart and the fuselage from the engine firewall to the rear bulkhead of the rear cockpit burned in its entirety, leaving nothing more than a pile of ash and rubble on the ground. In examining the photos of the wreckage, we found the engine firewall and the engine accessory inspection door. Neither of these showed any indication of fire penetration. Additionally, when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) inspector and I examined the aircraft wreckage, we found that the accessory section of the engine had no indication of any mechanical failure or fire damage. The engine-driven fuel pump and the engine-driven hydraulic pump appeared as normal. This leads me to believe that the fire was not generated from the engine compartment. Without any remains of the cockpit portion of the fuselage, it’s not possible to determine the exact nature of what failed. Another piece of information that I do have pertains to my flight suit and helmet. Both of these were returned to my family after the accident and both are saturated with an oily substance and smell of petroleum. A swatch from my flight suit has been sent to NTSB and is being tested to determine the exact content of the oily substance.
My speculation is the fire was generated under the cockpit floorboard and was fueled by hydraulic fluid under high-pressure. When the airplane is in a clean configuration, the hydraulic system is in a bypass mode and there is no hydraulic pressure. When I dropped the speed brake, the hydraulic system was pressurized. I believe this caused a compromised hydraulic line to fail. This is the point when the smoke in the cockpit occurred. The smoke was white, which I am told is oil based, not fuel-based which produces black smoke. I further speculate that when I dropped the gear, something electrical ignited the spray of hydraulic fluid. The way the fire was coming into the cockpit, I believe it burned through the floorboard below the pilot seat. It is unknown whether the generator failure and the momentary smell of something burning were related to the smoke and fire in the cockpit, but it certainly is very suspicious.
As far as safety takeaways for other pilots, I have several suggestions, as well as some food for thought. While most of my comments apply directly to pilots flying warbird aircraft, some of the comments also apply to airshow performers and aerobatic pilots, as well as general aviation pilots. Please keep in mind my suggestions are from my perspective and experience of the fast onset of a very severe fire in the cockpit.
• Read your aircraft manual. Study your aircraft’s emergency procedures and know your checklists. Keep them in your aircraft and if possible, follow them in an emergency. They can save your life. The consequences of not following published emergency procedures can be life altering (or worse).
It should be noted that checklist items printed in bold are intended to be committed to memory. These items should be memorized for those circumstances like mine with the fast onset of a ferocious fire. In my case, once the smoke and fire started, there was no time to pull out the checklist.
• Personal Safety Gear. Where applicable, wear a Nomex flight suit, gloves and helmet. I regret to say my gloves were in a bag on the floor and I had no time to reach for them. Initially, I thought the flames traveled up my pant legs and arm sleeves. But after discussion with a burn nurse at the hospital, I learned that I likely experienced thermal burns from the intense heat penetrating the flight suit.
The flames did not penetrate the flight suit, but the heat certainly did. I wish I had worn full-length clothing under my flight suit for thermal protection, even though it might be hot and uncomfortable. Instead, I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt under my flight suit. My burns extended from the middle of my thighs down to my toes and from the middle of my biceps all the way down my arms and hands. I also wish I had been wearing Nomex boots as the ankle-high leather work shoes I was wearing did not work out very well. My ankles were burned severely and the intense fire burnt the shoelaces and stitching out of my right shoe and it opened up, and my right foot suffered severe burns. I could possibly have reduced the amount and the level of burns I suffered, and the consequential amount of skin grafting, had I followed these recommendations.
• Your shoulder harness should always be tight and locked. There won’t be time to consider this in a catastrophic fire emergency. Also, consider a good sheepskin padding for the straps of your shoulder harness. I believe this extra padding helped me considerably during my forward impact. My aircraft went from 100 knots to full stop in about 20 feet. I remember telling a friend that I was surprised I didn’t have any significant injuries from the forward impact. My wife overheard this statement and corrected me. While I did not have internal injuries, she said “your torso in its entirety, was black and blue.”
• Install a quick release in the COM line of your helmet. Again, I don’t remember getting out of the aircraft, but I am sure I would not have thought or had the ability to unplug the COM lines. I am sure glad I had the quick release.
• Practice getting out of the aircraft on the ground with the parachute attached. I often practiced getting out of the cockpit with my parachute attached while in the hangar. Stepping up into the seat bucket with the parachute attached and staying out of the slipstream is harder than one realizes. I attribute my instinctual ability to get out of the burning cockpit with severe burns and compromised vision to my previous practice.
• Always carry an on-board fire extinguisher and consider installing an automatic fire suppression system. The onset of my fire came on so fast and ferocious, there was no time to think about my handheld fire extinguisher. To be honest, once the fire started, my focus became very narrow. The only thing I could think about was getting the plane on the ground and getting out of the cockpit. I was too low to bail out, and at this stage of my circle-to-land, I certainly could not let go of the stick to operate a fire extinguisher. I had no choice but to hold the stick and fly the aircraft to the ground. Consider installing an automatic fire suppression system not only in the engine compartment, but also under the floorboard of the cockpit.
• If you have any suspicion that there may be an impending inflight fire, obviously turn the DC power off and land immediately if possible. If a suitable landing area is not immediately available, I would recommend climbing to a bail out altitude and turning in the direction of a non-populated area. It gives one time to deal with emergencies, and it also gives one the option to bail out in the event of a catastrophic fire. In my case, the fire had a very fast onset and was ferocious. The fire was so intense that in the 20 to 25 seconds it took to fly the second half of the brake-to-land, I was at the end of my human endurance and my burns were severe. Even being in the pattern at 1,000 feet, configured for landing and only 180 degrees of turn to go, I could not complete the landing. If you are cruising along at 180 knots with the airplane configured clean, and you have a fast onset of a ferocious fire, you will not survive the time it takes to get the airplane on the ground with the fire burning.
If you suspect the possibility of an in-flight fire, take what precautions you can and also prepare your mindset ahead of time as to what you’re going to do if a fire should break out. In a T28, I would also recommend opening the canopy and dropping your speed brake, flaps and landing gear at altitude. Again, when you activate these functions, you pressurize the hydraulic system. Better to find out if you’re going to have a hydraulic system fire at altitude, than down low in the pattern. If you do experience a ferocious fire, it may be fueled by the engine-driven fuel pump or the engine-driven hydraulic pump. As listed under emergency procedures, if a fire breaks out, cut the engine fuel mixture immediately to stop the engine and hopefully stop feeding the fire. And of course, also turn the fuel selector and electric fuel pump off.
My closing comments are about complacency vs. being prepared. I know that many of my suggestions may seem obvious to any responsible pilot. While I considered myself a responsible pilot, I was complacent, I was not well prepared, and I failed to do what may seem obvious to others. When an emergency such as smoke in the cockpit or inflight fire occurs, it can be a moment of denial, as well as a moment of terror. While I continued to fly the aircraft as best I could, I was not at all prepared for such an event. In my case with the fast onset of the fire while in a 60-degree steep bank of a circle-to-land and low to the ground, it was too late for preparations or emergency checklists. I was in survival mode. As stated above, I remember my focus became very narrow; all I could think about was to fly the airplane to the ground and get out. I offer these thoughts so that others can have the opportunity to be best prepared.
With the benefit of 2020 hindsight, I will tell you what I think I should have done differently.
• I should have worn all of the fire protection gear I listed above, especially the Nomex gloves and Nomex boots. While the protective gear I suggested would have reduced the level of burns I suffered, when you have the fast onset of a fire in the cockpit, you still have to put the fire out or exit the cockpit ASAP. Unfortunately, I have nothing to offer in terms of face protection. In this case, the only options are to put the fire out immediately and/or exit the aircraft ASAP.
• At the very first indication of the smell of something burning, I should have turned off the DC power to the OFF position. I made the very costly mistake of switching the DC power from battery/generator, to battery only, to maintain radio communication and also for landing gear and speed brake operation. At this point I also should have prepared my mindset for what I may have to do if a fire were to break out.
• At the initial onset of smoke and/or fire in the cockpit, I should have moved the engine mixture to cut off. In my case, this would have stopped the engine-driven hydraulic pump from feeding the fire. Obviously, I did not prepare my mindset for this event. I just never suspected that what started as a generator failure, could result in the fast onset of a ferocious fire.
I will make this comment about the North American T-28 Trojan; the aircraft has a very robust airframe and will absorb a lot of impact. While the airframe broke apart, the cockpit section did not collapse or trap me inside. I was able to climb out despite this devastating crash. One additional first responder who showed up onsite immediately after the crash, happened to be my advanced flight instructor for the past 26 years. He stated: “I saw the cockpit portion of the fuselage sitting upright on its belly, fully intact, canopy open and engulfed in flames.” He also stated, it was a good thing I opened the canopy before the crash, or in my condition, I likely would not have been able to get out and would not have survived the post-crash fire.
Again, I am thankful to be alive and hope this article will help save a fellow aviator.