A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Smoke in the cockpit

May 18, 2021
Emilie Phillips

I had my first in-flight emergency Tuesday. It happened on the way back from the mechanic’s with my RV-4. I always do an extra diligent preflight after my plane gets serviced in case they forgot to put something back together. When I first powered on the RV-4, I smelled something like burnt oil. It usually smells that way when I first get the plane back from annual. After a few flights it clears up. I assume they drip some fluids when working around the engine, and haven’t worried about it.

A little after I raised my flaps during takeoff, I noticed the smell was getting worse. I opened the fresh air vent and finished my post takeoff checklist. It was really getting smelly. I should tell Tyson about it when we got home and have him look into it. Or should I turn around and take it back to the mechanic? Just what was a bad enough smell to turn around. The tower controller handed me off to Boston departure air traffic control. Is that a gray haze around my cowling? I craned my neck but couldn’t see a point source. Woah, that’s not just a bad smell, now my eyes are stinging and the air is noticeably gray in the cockpit. Smoke! Turn around!

I informed ATC that I had smoke in the cockpit and was returning to land at Manchester.

Shortly after I throttled back, the smoke cleared. At that point, I just tried to refocus on a normal landing. Luckily the runway is long. Once on the ground, I told the tower that I didn’t need the fire truck they had gotten ready just in case.

Post analysis

  • Had it been an in flight fire, I would have needed to turn off the fuel. I didn’t think of that.
  • I didn’t officially declare an emergency. Not sure about the pros/cons of official declaration of emergency. In this case ATC accommodated my request for an immediate landing.
  • I should have scanned all my gages for extra clues on what was making the smoke.

My mechanic is investigating what went wrong. His first guess is one of the sealants he used.

Update May 25

The mechanic found that the issue was a sealant he used on the heat exchanger around the exhaust. It claimed to be rated for high temperatures.

I downloaded the radio recordings from liveatc.net. Here is what it sounded like on air. I have clipped it to just the frequencies I was using when I was on them. Tyson flying home ahead of me switched frequencies at a slightly different time. N(November)61AW is me. N916JC is Tyson.

Air traffic control recording

And here is my GPS track


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Comments (4)

  • Heart is racing a bit just reading this.
    Glad to have had you tell the tale

    Besutiful flying weather these days!!

    • It was an odd combination of quite stressful, and a non-event.

      We were thinking of going for to two day camping and flying event this weekend, but the weather is forecast to stop being nice.

    • It was a new sealant the mechanic used on the heat shroud. It was supposed to be good for high temperatures, but apparently not as high as it got in the engine compartment.