An Enlightening Experience

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(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)

“Speed is life”, the old aviation adage goes.  But on May 16, 2010 I had plenty of speed, about 540 mph, and I had plenty of altitude, 36,000, however, life was not guaranteed!

In order to give you a good feel for what I was about to be confronted with, I will provide some background details on the day that led up to my “enlightening experience”.

I arrived at my hotel room at approximately 7 am Sunday morning, May 16th, after flying the all nighter from LAX to JFK.  I finally got into my comfy hotel bed and tried to catch up on that much needed night time commodity, of which I had to bypass during the night because I was flying-SLEEP! Unfortunately, I could only get approximately 4 1/2 hours of sleep and woke up at about 11:45 am that same Sunday morning.

After having a one person conversation with me about my desire for more sleep,  I nevertheless decided to get up, showered, ordered up a great NYC pizza, turned on the NASCAR race from Dover International Speedway, and watched ol Kylie Busch win the race.  Shortly after the race ended, I packed up my bags, got my uniform on, went downstairs, then my First Officer and I grabbed the van back to JFK for our flight back to LAX.

After going through security I finally maneuvered down through the bowels of our operations at JFK in the British Airways terminal to finally arrive at our JFK flight operations.  It is here that I am able to pull up the paperwork that will give me the vital information about our route of flight, the enroute weather,the departure and arrival airport conditions, and the condition of the airplane that is assigned to me for this flight.

After reading all the paperwork for this flight, I noticed that this plane had diverted to Las Vegas on the previous day, Saturday May 15th, for smoke or fumes in the cockpit.  The aircraft was ferried (flown without passengers) to San Francisco to the maintenance facility and was checked out further.  The mechanics there were unable to find the problem, or so the paperwork stated, and the aircraft was put back into service. Also noted in the paperwork was the inbound crew had, once again, written up smoke or fumes detected in the cockpit upon their arrival at JFK.

Upon my arrival to the gate and airplane, a mechanic was standing in the cockpit.  I engaged him in conversation regarding the write ups of the previous two days on the aircraft relating to the smoke and fumes in the cockpit.  He assured me that there was nothing found in the airplane that would warrant any concern on my part.  I conferred with my First Officer, we discussed our concerns, then decided that we would fly the airplane as planned.  However, my parting remarks to the mechanic was, “at the first hint of smoke, I will put this thing down on the very first piece of concrete that I see, do I make myself clear”!  The mechanic wasn’t too pleased with my parting shot!

Little did I know that the statement would become a reality!

With all the passengers seated, the bags all stowed, the cargo doors all closed and locked, it is time to push back, taxi out, and fly this B-757 to LAX.   It is now SHOWTIME!

As we took off to the west on runway 13R at JFK, at approximately 8:29 pm EDT, the lights of Queens and Howard Beach were in our face.  Shortly after liftoff we made a left turn to fly the departure over Canarsie, then out over NY Harbor heading to Sandy Hook, NJ.  From there the departure takes us just a little north of Philly as we are heading west for LAX.  During the climb  there are numerous turns and level offs to keep the north-south traffic separated from the traffic heading westward.

Momentarily after level off, I instructed my First Officer to turn off the seat belt sign and talk to the passengers.  He gave the “welcome aboard” speech, the pertinent details of the flight, our proposed arrival time, and arrival weather.

Once he finished his PA announcement we started to engage in some conversation.  Before even the first thought was completely expressed, a hissing sound emanating  from just below the left corner of where the front windshield meets the glareshield.  Almost simultaneously with the hissing sound, came smoke boiling out from under that same corner.  Likewise within a nano-second of the hissing and the smoke, fire erupted in that very same left-hand corner of the front windshield with flames running all the way up to the ceiling of the cockpit!  “Holy S!*t” was my first thought!

I immediately gave control of the airplane to my First Officer, told him to call ATC to declare an emergency, and request an immediate decent!  All the while we had put on our smoke goggles and oxygen masks, because the cockpit had started to fill up with that acrid electrical fire smell that burns your eyes, nose, and throat.  The acrid smell is very distinctive and once you have smelled you will never forget what it smells like!

As I whirled around and jumped out of my seat to grab the Halon fire bottle, which is located behind my seat on the back wall of the cockpit, the oxygen hose that is attached to my mask had reached its length limit, snatching both my goggles and mask off my face.  Holly Moses, I thought!  This is extremely bad timing and what a horribly poor design this is!  I am now stuck with fighting this fire, at least momentarily, without the use of my oxygen mask and smoke goggles. THIS REALLY SUCKS!

After I retrieved the first Halon fire bottle, I got my mask and goggles back on and began to fight this cockpit fire.  I pulled the pin, pointed the nozzle at the base of the flames, and squeezed the trigger. It seemed like simultaneously the bottle emptied and the flames extinguished. Thank you God, I thought!  My pulse lessened and I started to breath easier.  However, that feeling was only to be momentary at best!

Then just as suddenly as the flames extinguished, the flames re-lit!  “Oh my God, this may kill me”, I said to myself!  Instantaneously I spun around heading for the cockpit door to request from my Pursor/head flight attendant another Halon fire bottle.  With that move, once again, my oxygen mask and smoke goggles were snatched off my face with the same force as before!  Now my pulse had quickened once again, my blood pressure went through the roof, for I now felt the urgency of life and death!

As I opened the cockpit door I was met by my Pursor with a Halon fire bottle in his hands shoving into mine, he had already figured out that there was an electrical fire in the cockpit, and that I needed all the Halon bottles that he could muster up for my use.  I quickly closed the cockpit door and frantically pulled the pin on this bottle and began to empty the second Halon bottle into the fire.  It was in this time that we removed the power to the window heat by turning off the switches simultaneously while I was fighting the fire with the second fire bottle.  As this bottle emptied, the fire went out once again, hopefully to remain out for the duration of the flight.

Once this fire appeared to be out I climbed back into my seat and got up to speed with the First Officer on the progress of his requests.  I then told ATC that we wanted to land at Washington Dulles ASAP!  We had already started a descent and ATC had given us a vector heading, which was a turn to our right.  That would give us more time to get the aircraft down.  At this point the airplane was descending out of 36,000 feet and Dulles airport was only about 50-55 miles to our left.  The right turn was not the most direct path, however, it was going to give me the needed time to get this airplane down in the very short distance that was available!

Now it was time to assure the passengers that their pilots have the situation under control.  With that I got on the PA system and told the passengers that we have experienced an abnormality in the cockpit and that we have the situation well under control.  Additionally, the flight was now on its way to Washington Dulles for landing.  Furthermore, your flight attendants will have some much needed information, please pay very close attention.

The descent was fairly rapid at about 4,000-5000 feet per minute, with the speed brake fully extended for added drag.  As it turned out, the large sweeping right hand turn was working out just perfectly for loosing altitude and positioning the aircraft to line up on runway 19L at Washington Dulles.  By approximately 10 miles out of final approach the aircraft was stabilized, on course, and on profile for landing.  Everything was now under control! I was feeling like “mission accomplished”!

What else could possibly go wrong?

Finally everything had come together and was looking like a normal approach, fully configured, stabilized, now all that is left is put this on the runway and get it stopped!  At about 500 feet above the ground there was a very loud bang or explosion.  The noise shocked me and the view that I had instantly after the explosion was frightening.  My front windshield had shattered and crazed, I had zero forward visibility!

Immediately I transferred control of the aircraft to the First Officer so that he could make the landing.  Another curve ball was thrown at the crew.  For this last segment of the flight, I wasn’t sure if my windshield was going to implode into the cockpit an essentially fill me up with shattered shards of glass, and possibly cause great bodily harm to me!  Consequently, I was sitting very low in my seat, kinda like “Cheech and Chong” in the movie Up In Smoke, hoping to avoid the windshield, if in fact, it imploded in on me.

Once that aircraft was down to a very slow taxi speed I take back control of the aircraft and taxied it off the runway to the awaiting flotilla of fire trucks, the time was approximately 9:36 pm EDT.

With ground control acting as the liaison between the fire trucks and the flight crew, we coordinated engine shut down, the  firemen checking the exterior of the aircraft, and finally getting the fireman to board the aircraft to further check for the existence of fire inside the aircraft.

Once it was determined that the aircraft was safe the tug was allowed to hook up and pull the aircraft on the the gate.  Once out of the aircraft, after the paperwork was accomplished in the aircraft’s log book, I headed to our flight operations at out Washington Dulles.  Sitting down in a chair already was agents from the FAA!

Now even more  paperwork has just begun!

Following the paperwork came the different investigations regarding the cockpit fire over the next 10 days.

That is still another story to come!

However, I finally got to my hotel room at 1:00 am EDT Monday morning, May 17,2010, totally exhausted both physically and emotionally!

So other than that Captain, how was your flight this evening?