1 pilot/1 passenger
In-flight fire with emergency water landing
We topped the aircraft off with fuel at Baytown airport (KHPY) on the east
side of Houston Texas. I departed VFR and picked up our IFR clearance from
Houston Approach en-route, prior to reaching SBI (Sabine VOR). I was cleared as
filed, SBI LLA LEV Q100 SRQ KSRQ.
We leveled of at 11,000 ft. After crossing LEV, we received lost comms
procedures from Houston Center, which I am quite familiar with as standard
operating procedure on our altitude and routing, having flown this exact flight
many times in the past, including in N265Q. In approximately the vicinity of
REDFN intersection, I noticed a small amount of smoke in the cockpit. I quickly
alerted ATC that we had a problem before shutting off the master (in hopes that
I had an electrical short which would be resolved by doing so).
The amount of smoke increased exponentially almost immediately. Not being
able to see very much, I popped the cabin door open and also the pilot storm
window. While having the door open sucked out most of the smoke and made it
possible to breathe, it was still nearly impossible to see anything. My
passenger then yelled "Flames! Flames!" and just at that time I also noticed
flames through the gap between the panel and glare shield. At that point, I
immediately pulled both engines to idle and pushed the nose over into a dive.
I activated the aircraft's 406.1mhz beacon in the dive. By now, it was
getting a bit toasty in the cockpit! It was nearly impossible to see out the
windshield, so I flew the airplane by looking out the pilot storm window.
Thankfully, it seemed that most of the smoke was being sucked out of the cabin
door. I leveled the airplane about 100 ft above the water, saw a large yacht
which I attempted to get as close as I could to without endangering, then
touched down in the water.
We skipped off the water, went about 30 ft in the air, and the next time we
came down, the water grabbed us pretty hard. We stopped quickly enough that my
prescription sunglasses were thrown off my face (they fit very tightly). I was
able to keep the wings level, and we came to a stop in the same direction we
were pointed in, right side up. I popped our seatbelts and we exited the
By the time we removed our seatbelts, the water inside the cabin was nearly
up to the seats. We stepped out onto the wing and I grabbed our inflatable PFD's
and ditch bag. By the time we had them inflated and around our necks, we were up
to our necks in water. I estimate the aircraft fully sank within 2 minutes of
I carry PFD's for every passenger. They were not really suitable for offshore
use (I knew this when I purchased them, but went with this style due to size and
ease of use. I would have loved to have offshore jackets, but it seems a bit
ridiculous to carry them around in your airplane all the time.)
We kept getting swamped with waves over our heads, even though the seas were
relatively calm. I activated my SPOT upon entering the water (I have carried one
with my since they were first introduced). The yacht never saw us. We waved and
waved until the disappeared. We bobbed around in the Gulf for nearly 3 hours. A
CBP fixed wing aircraft was doing a search pattern for 30 minutes before the
USCG helicopter showed up. They both flew right over the top of us many times
and never spotted us. The USCG chopper flew right over us about 6 times before
they spotted us. This was where I started to become a bit worried. We could see
them, but they could not see our heads in the water.
We watched them fly over and waved at them, while I watched the sun setting.
I knew if they didn't find us within 30 minutes, we would be staying the night
out there and our odds for survival would drop drastically. I am not sure how
cold the water was, but into the second hour, we were both cold and shivering.
Finally they spotted us.
The USCG did an excellent job on the pickup. It was the swimmer's first water
rescue. They were very professional. Later over a bite to eat, they told me that
they had expected to find either nothing, or a couple of bodies. The commander
attributed our survival to being 'extremely well prepared.' (I disagree with
this a bit, more on that below.)
When I owned my Bonanza, I carried a life raft with me for these crossings. I
fly regularly to Florida and Mexico across the Gulf during all times of year. I
always carry a PFD for each passenger and a 'ditch' bag with water and cliff
bars in it. My SPOT is always within reach. When I moved to a twin, after the
first few overwater flights, I sold the life raft on eBay. I looked at it as
unnecessarily taking up space. After all, I can lose and engine and still fly to
my destination! That was a big mistake. I would have given my left nut to have a
life raft out there. Not only would it have been much more comfortable, but it
would have made us much more easy to locate. 2 heads bobbing around is tough to
see, especially compared to a big colorful raft.
What I learned (or already knew):
If you fly over water like I do, bring a raft. If you don't own one, borrow
Carry a PFD for each passenger.
Have a small ditch bag prepared with food and water.
Carry a PLB or SPOT on your person.
My Baron was equipped with double shoulder harnesses. Without them, we
probably would have been knocked out and drowned yesterday. At the very least, I
would have serious facial lacerations and/or a broken nose. I will not get into
an airplane without them. I do not care if it is for a quick ride around the
pattern. It is not going to happen.
I consider myself having been (barely) adequately prepared for this.
'Well-prepared,' as the USCG Commander put it, to me would have meant being in a
Things in our favor were the relatively warm water temperature, the
relatively calm sea state, the pretty good weather in the area, my emergency
contacts knowing exactly what to tell the emergency responders. Also, having
lived aboard and cruised my sailboat for 2.5 years and being a USCG licensed
captain, I have had extensive water survival training. That definitely helped.
Did my seaplane rating help? Probably not (even though my seaplane instructor
would like to believe it did!)
I have no idea with certainty what caused the fire. The OAT was in the low
40s and I had turned on the heater approx 5-10 minutes before the first smoke
appeared. Turning it and the master off did not change the situation. It could
have been many things, but I can only speculate.... Everyone tells me I am very
lucky. I tell them that if I was at all lucky, my damn airplane wouldn't have
Something else I have given some thought to ... If this would have happened
just 4-5 flight hours earlier, I would not be writing this post. A few days
before this flight, I spent an entire day bouncing around the southeast almost
all IMC and every approach to minimums or near minimums. I am trying to keep a
good attitude about the whole thing, but I would be a liar if I didn't admit
that I am slightly shaken up over this ordeal.
I have had smoke in the cockpit of another plane. Interestingly also over
water, but just Galveston bay at 1500 ft. It wasn't very much smoke and went
away 10 seconds after flipping off the master.
I had the nose baggage packed full of our luggage (clothes) since we were
carrying 2 large marine water makers in the back of the cabin. Like many other
Baron pilots I know, I also store oil, cleaning supplies, rags, etc up there.
All flammable. I wonder if that stuff had started somehow started on fire?
When we hit the water, the plane immediately started sinking (nose first).
The nose was just about immediately under water. The smoke went away and turned
to a little steam. My inquisitive nature has me asking a lot of questions.
Especially if I end up with another Baron, I sure would like to know what
happened. Perhaps some closure for me. Even if the plane had floated for a few
minutes, I doubt I would have been able to (or wanted to at that point)
I checked our estimated position on a marine chart, and it appears my baby is
sitting in 2500 feet of water. With no fatalities (or even injuries) on a
personal flight, I highly doubt anyone is going to cough up the money to raise
her. I was told that sending the ship with a robot sub and crane out there with
crew runs over $50,000 per day, and it may take a few days to locate. After the
plane sinking, hitting the bottom, and spending that much time down there in
salt water, would we even be able to determine the cause?
As to the question about the fire extinguisher. I don't have a solid answer,
I can only speculate. I have experience with dry chemical extinguishers, not
halon. I would never want to pop one off in a cockpit or any compact area. I
think it would make a big problem worse. I understand halon is better. However,
I believe the source of this fire was in the nose of the aircraft. I may have
been able to keep some of the fire from creeping into the cockpit? Maybe? I
don't really know. I am not sure I would have even tried it if i had one handy.
I hate to sound dramatic, but I think 90 seconds longer in the air and I may
have not been able to get down on the water.