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Wednesday, September 30, 2015


It's a beautiful day for flying. The winds are light, the sky is clear, and the temperature is perfect. It's the sort of day where you'd almost feel guilty if you didn't take advantage of the opportunity, since the beginning of fall means days like this are numbered.

It's just a short hop from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton over to Newark. Not even half an hour in the air at 270 knots, and less than an hour from gate to gate. Nonetheless, those few dozen minutes take you through some magnificent scenery, from the Pocono Mountains and the "tricky triangle" of the Pocono Raceway, over the Delaware Water Gap that runs through the Worthington State Forest and marks the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, over thick woods dotted with lakes carved out by glaciers 20,000 years ago, to farmland and then cities packed more and more densely before the trip ends just on the other side of the Hudson from the magnificent skyline. What could go wrong?

Well, just like any flight, nothing will probably go wrong, but something always can. And in this case, something did.

We're about 10 miles northwest of the Boonton Reservoir. It's easy to spot from the air, as it has a small island in the middle of it; in fact, it's so easy to spot it's used as a visual checkpoint:

Boonton Reservoir is the lake marked with a flag at the upper left. Newark is the big airport near the bottom right.
How do I know this? Because I'm keeping the general picture in my mind of where we are as the flight progresses. That's nothing unusual; in fact, that's exactly what you're supposed to be doing!

We've already started our descent and begun the pre-landing preparations. Everything is going just as it has on almost all of the hundreds and hundreds of flights I've done before. And then a blinking red light comes...


We have dozens of yellow caution lights for all sorts of minor issues, from the parking brake being set to hydraulic systems to any of the multitude of power sources. These cause a yellow flashing light to come on. We have only a handful of red ones: the ones that are REALLY serious. This was one of the red ones.

This one's job was to tell us that there might be a fire in the cargo compartment. What are we going to do about it?

The same thing you should do every minute of every flight: fly the airplane.

On this particular leg, I was the Pilot Not Flying and the Captain was the Pilot Flying. He did exactly what needed to be done: he flew the airplane while we dealt with the problem. What does "dealing with the problem" mean? The same thing it should mean for you, and the same thing you should have been trained for (and we are trained for every six months):

Don't just do something--sit there!

This is an old aviation adage that has a world of wisdom wrapped up in it. It doesn't mean do nothing, it means do the right thing in the right way at the right time. This is an easy 3-step process:

1. Fly the airplane
2. Keep calm
3. Run your procedures

From the sectional excerpt above, you can see that we were close to both Essex County and Morristown Municipal. Both of them were suitable for landing. We continued past them and on to Newark. Why?

Because we were busy doing those three steps. The Captain was flying the airplane, we were both calm, and I was running the checklist for a smoke warning annunciator. To make a sudden, drastic change in destination would require a whole new plan of action; something probably not best done while in the middle of trying to determine if the back of the aircraft is on fire. One thing at a time: the right thing in the right way at the right time.

While I'm just beginning the checklist, New York Approach spits out in their rapid-fire way a descent, a heading, and a frequency change. Since I was busy managing the checklist, I simply repeated the frequency, ignored the rest, and checked in with the new controller in a calm voice,

"New York, [Flight Number] declaring an emergency. We've had a smoke warning light come on. No further assistance required at this time."

Basically, in a few short sentences, I told ATC--who are a vital part of the team in this--that we have a problem, that it might be a serious one, we're coming to Newark and we need to do it in the most direct way, and we're busy dealing with it so keep the chatter and instructions to a minimum while we handle it.

And that's exactly what they did and we did. They gave us a simple heading that pointed us straight to the airport, gave us an altitude that would set us up on a downwind leg for the runway they would have cleared and waiting for us, and asked very few questions except for the standard souls on board and fuel remaining ones.

In the meantime, I was running through the checklist, informing the flight attendant of the situation and asking her to see whether there actually was smoke coming from the cargo compartment or not, getting the final before landing items done, and so on. After all, this sort of thing has happened to me many times before--except all the other times were in the simulator.

After a couple of minutes, the flight attendant reported that there was no sign of anything unusual. It was likely a false alarm, but we continued to handle the situation exactly the same. Fly the airplane, keep calm, and carry on.

After landing, a half dozen fire trucks were waiting for us on the taxiway we'd be likely to turn off. Notice in my initial call-up above that I never asked for them. I didn't need to: ATC is highly trained too and smart enough to know that where there's smoke, there's fire. All I had to do was tell them our situation and let them do the job of getting the resources supplied.

As we taxied off the runway, I thanked ATC for their help and switched to the frequency the fire trucks use. They made a pass around the plane and saw nothing usual either. They scanned the cargo compartment with their thermal cameras and verified that there was no fire. It was just a bad sensor after all.

Any time a big red flashing light goes off in the cockpit, it's easy to declare an emergency. But what about when things are seemingly more minor? In the next post, I'll get into a bit more about what constitutes an "emergency". See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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