Internet Version Revised 2017
Smoke in the Cockpit

It was a routine business trip on behalf of Spur Products in Boise, Idaho, to Signetics in Orem, Utah for the negotiation of a sole-source agreement for the supply of a unique microprocessor, the 8X305
Excuse me, but at this writing, twenty-five event-filled years have just swept by and every detail about the trip seems to have been locked into my memory by the events of that day. 
My favorite airplane had just come out of the shop at the Boise Airport following a top-overhaul of its engine and an upgrade of electronics on its instrument panel.  Of course, I was eager to go flying in that little beauty.  As chief engineer at Spur, I could have made the trip alone, but for business reasons, I invited Spur's director of operations, a fellow named George, to accompany me. 
That decision saved my life...

Weather was CAVU and wind calm.  It would be a stupendous two-hour flight, and we were all set to be met at the Provo Airport.  Half way there, I called for permission to enter the Terminal Control Area (TCA)...

"Good morning, Salt Lake City Approach, this is Cardinal Three-Four-Niner-One-Four."

A few seconds went by before a grumpy voice replied, "Niner-One-Four, go ahead."

"We're about forty miles northwest at niner-thousand five-hundred, VFR for landing at Provo, requesting a clearance to traverse your TCA."

Grumpy said, "Squawk one-two-seven-one and Ident."

After setting up the transponder as instructed, I solemnly repeated back the instructions.

Another delay. "Niner-One-Four, no radar contact; did you key your Ident like I told you?"

"That's affirmative," said I cheerfully while grinning at George.  I had told him before departure about airport personalities, in particular the nastiness of Salt Lake City.

"Well, I'm not seeing you, so until we get radar contact, stay clear of the TCA."

The chart indicates that the floor of the TCA is 8,600 feet, so I say, "Niner-One-Four is descending to get below your TCA on Victor 200.  Will that be all right with you?"

Grumpy obviously does not like smart alecks.  "Frequency change approved, but if you're ever coming back here again, you better get yourself a new transponder."
What the controller did not know was that my transponder was actually brand new.  It had just been installed the day before.  I thought it unnecessary to mention that.  Instead I called Provo tower and got our flight cleared for a routine VFR approach and landing.
After our business meeting and luncheon, George and I were driven back to the airport.  On the way, George quizzed me about the transponder.  I gave him a quick explanation and the history of its invention in 1960. "Ironically, it is the only instrument in the airplane that directly benefits air traffic controllers in radar rooms -- not pilots in the sky," I commented.  "Acceptance of the transponder was initially resisted by aircraft owners and airlines, too.  All it shows is a flashing light on the panel."
For the return flight, readers are referred to this excerpt from the 2017 sectional chart...

By telephone, I filed a VFR flight plan.  We took off from Provo and began our climb on a heading of 270o direct to the FAIRFIELD VOR.  Then we turned to a heading of 310o and continued climbing toward our cruise altitude of 8,500 ft on V200.  Since that Victor airway clips the corner of the TCA at a location with a floor of 8,000 ft (120/80 ), we needed to get an entry clearance.
"Salt Lake City Approach, this is Cardinal Three-Four-Niner-One-Four northbound from Fairfield VOR on Victor 200, climbing through 6,000 for 8,500, VFR for Boise, requesting TCA clearance."

"Good afternoon, Niner-One-Four."  Sure enough it was our grumpy friend from that morning. "Try squawking
one-two-seven-two this time and don't forget to press Ident."

"One-two-seven-two, Ident." I replied, ignoring the sarcasm in his voice.

There were no other calls on that frequency, but at least ten seconds of radio silence went by.  "Uh, Niner-One-Four, I see your primary blip but that transponder of yours is not making marks on my screen here.  Stay below 8,000 and maintain VFR."

"Seems my new transponder is not working," I replied.  "Sorry about that."
For a minute or so, I was bemused by the irony of the situation... 
The earliest altitude reporting transponder system in 1960 was as much my invention as anyone else's.  It used peanut-sized vacuum tubes that required high voltage power from the rectified output of a step-up transformer driven by a buzzing inverter from battery voltage.  Thirty-some years later, the only instrument to fail in any airplane I had ever flown is the latest version of the transponder, which applies the most advanced solid state technology. 
"No problem, George," I said, pointing at the chart.  "We'll level off at 6,500 until we're outside the TCA boundary.  I don't want to talk to that guy anymore anyway."

As we reached the shoreline, George got my attention. He frowned and said that he was smelling something.   First thing I thought of was the engine and its top-overhaul the previous week.  It must be fumes from the engine compartment.  De-greasing fluids, maybe.  Nothing to worry about.  I sniffed for engine odors but got nothing for the effort. 
Although I am reluctant to admit it, my sense of smell has been impaired for many years by a chronic sinus condition. 
We flew on in silence.  I took a cross-bearing at the STACO intersection abeam Salt Lake City.

"Electrical, Paul.  I think the smell could be coming from hot electrical insulation." 

Hmm.  Not the engine compartment, then.  Must be
something right here in the cockpit.  Holy shit!  I reached for the Master switch, and shut it off.  That removed electrical power from every system and instrument in the plane.  The Cardinal's engine, of course, was not affected, inasmuch as its fuel is delivered by gravity and its ignition by engine-driven magnetos. 

Banking the plane to the right toward Salt Lake City, I tore off my headphones and hollered at George to give me the hand-held radio from my flight bag.  With trembling fingers I inadvertently copied the digits from the plane's radio into the hand-held instead of entering the emergency frequency. 
"Cardinal Niner-One-Four has smoke in the cockpit!" I said in a quaking voice.

The grumpy guy became suddenly sincere.  "Niner-One-Four, how can I help you?"

"My last fix was STACO a
t 6,500.  I have shut off everything electrical."
About that moment grey smoke was becoming visible, wafted by the air-vent into my eyes.  I started to cough and so did George.  Maybe I was too late with the Master switch.  Damn!
"Niner-One-Four, I have your primary echo a mile north of STACO. You are about twenty miles west of here.  Do you want to declare an emergency?"

"The smoke is getting worse.  Is there a runway closer than Salt Lake City?"

"That's affirmative, Niner-One-Four, you've got Bolinder Field about twelve miles south.  You want a vector?"

"I'll take it."

"Heading one-five-zero, direct Bolinder." The controller hesitated for an acknowledgement, but I was busy closing the air vents.  He keyed his transmitter again.  "Expect a five knot wind from the north, favoring runway one-zero; pattern altitude there is 5,100 ft."
As we began our descent, the smoke dissipated somewhat.  I made one last call to Approach.
"We have Bolinder in sight."

"You've got plenty of runway for your landing without flaps.  Good luck.  Um, don't forget to pump your gear down.  We don't want you scratching up your Cardinal."

"Changing to Unicom now.  Thanks for your help."
That's not quite the end of the story. 

As we were rolling out on the runway following the landing, the cockpit was clear of smoke, but the propeller suddenly stopped.  Stopped! 
George and I looked at each other wide-eyed.  He shook my hand.  "Thank you, Paul."  Twenty-five years ago, that is exactly what he said.
"Thank you, George.  You were my canary in the mine shaft."  Twenty-five years ago, that is not exactly what I said.  But I wish it was.
We got out of the plane, attached the tow-bar, and pulled Niner-One-Four off the runway.  Climbing  back in, I popped all the breakers on the instrument panel one by one.  Then I tentatively turned on the Master switch and started the engine.  It ran nice as you please.  No smoke in the cockpit. 

George and I taxied to transient parking and found an available tie-down.


It was indeed the brand new transponder that failed and burned up.  The thing would probably have done real damage if the electrical power had been left on much longer.  The remedy aloft would have been most elementary: Just turn the transponder off with the
ON-OFF-STBY switch.  Duh.

As for the engine, its idle setting was merely too slow.  In normal operations on the ground, the engine is never idled.  While landing, of course, the throttle is closed, but the propeller is windmilling. After rolling out following touchdown, the pilot throttles up to 1,500 RPM to taxi off the runway.


Readers may notice the parachute symbol west of Bolinder Field on the chart above.  George and I received a van-lift with some sky-divers to -- where else? -- Salt Lake City International Airport.  Later we boarded a turboprop feeder-liner and reached our homes in Boise before midnight.

The next day, I conducted a rather indignant conversation with the FBO
who had serviced my plane.  That afternoon the mechanic took me in his plane to Bolinder Field, there to perform diagnoses on the Cardinal.  To share his transponder, we flew formation back to Boise for -- well, some warranty work.

Finally, for a more favorable case of Irony Aloft, readers are invited to consider the story of another invention -- this one dating back to 1954, as described in the chapter entitled Flash in the Sky.  Its self-referential rôle in saving my life can be found in the chapter entitled Two-Four Fox.  
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