“Fire, Captain”! The co-pilot yelled. He turned around to look at the smoke billowing out from the
rear of the airplane into the cabin. The passengers were screaming and trying to cover their noses
from the acrid smell permeating throughout the cabin. He turned to me with fear in his eyes and
repeated, “Cap, we’re on fire!”
As I turned to look back into the cabin, Alan, my co-pilot, turned back around and feverishly started
opening his window. I immediately shouted at him to stop! Unfortunately, it was too late. He had
managed to lower his window a few inches, and he instantly was engulfed by smoke seeking the only
opening, and he blacked out in seconds from the dense smoke flowing past his face.
From the smell of the smoke that swirled past us, I was able to identify it as an electrical fire and
immediately hit the master switch on the overhead panel and prayed that it would help reduce the
threat that would engulf the passengers, crew and the entire aircraft. I also turned off all the radios
on the instrument panel and had a moment’s confusion about my next action.
We were flying in a Twin Otter, DHC-6,100, and only 8 minutes into our flight to Bartica, a small
village South West of Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana. To make matters worse, we were in a
total whiteout, rain, and light turbulence. We had 14 passengers, two crew, and cargo on board.
Bartica, our destination, was only a 15-minute flight from our departure, Timehri international airport
under normal conditions.
It was a runway that had to be operated under visual flight rules (VFR) as Bartica was not an airport
approved for instrument approach operations. I was confronted with the problem of having no way
to continue to our destination due to the fire, the deteriorating weather conditions, and no
As I was deliberating possible actions, I risked a quick glance toward the cargo compartment and
noticed a lessening of the smoke coming into the cabin.
I was trying to deal with many factors simultaneously while maintaining level flight around 2.000 feet.
Fortunately, there were no obstacles in the area or high ground, so that was not an added concern.
Still maintaining course for Bartica, I noticed that Alan was slowly regaining his senses as the smoke
lessened. I reached over and grabbed his shoulder. “Alan, close your window,” I said.
He opened his eyes and looked at me. “What Cap,” he asked groggily. “Close your window,” I
repeated. He managed to shut the window and asked if we were still on fire? I told him that it looked
as if the fire was confined to the electrical bay near the baggage compartment.
His eyes were all reddened from the smoke and teary-eyed as well. He looked back into the cabin and
saw that the smoke had almost totally dissipated, and the passengers were somewhat calmer. He
asked, “what do we do now?”
I said to him, “Our options are pretty limited. We are in Instrument Flight conditions, with no
visibility, rain, and light turbulence. We have no alternative but to turn back to Timehri.”
Now, however, I was faced with new challenges. How to communicate my problem and how to let
the tower know my intentions. My prior knowledge of aircraft equipment came into play. Before I
became a pilot, I was an aircraft mechanic for many years and pretty knowledgeable about any
aircraft I flew. I felt the smoke came from an electrical fire in the rear of the airplane where all the
radio equipment was installed.
I decided to take a cautious gamble. I turned on the master switch and one of the VHF radios used to
communicate with the tower. I asked Alan to keep looking at the rear of the cabin and let me know if
more smoke was starting to come into the cabin. He said he did not notice an increase, and the
smoke was dying down.
I quickly called the tower at Timehri on VHF #1, and declared an emergency! The tower operator said,
“Please confirm you are declaring an emergency?”
“Affirmative,” I said, “Possible fire in the rear of the aircraft and returning to the airport.”
The tower operator responded, “Gulf Charlie Papa (GCP) – cleared for an instrument approach to
Timehri, runway 06. Be aware, low cloud cover, approximately 500-foot ceiling, and rain at Timehri at
this time, visibility is less than 1 mile.”
I replied, “negative on the instrument approach Timehri, and we only have the one VHF operating
and no other navigation aids available due to the fire.”
There was a pause on the radio. Then the tower operator said, “Understand GCP, no navigation aids
for an instrument approach to Timehri? Please state your intentions at this time.”
I pondered this for a few seconds. Having flown out of Timehri for years as a bush pilot and with the
national airline, I had intimate knowledge of the airport and the surrounding area. Timehri airport
was situated just inside a curve of the Demerara river and 95 feet above ground level.
I had made hundreds of visual approaches to Timehri, and I felt I had sufficient knowledge to try and
make an approach to the runway without navigation aids (no ADF or VOR) in poor weather
conditions. And, hoping that I would be making the right decision to pull off a safe landing.
I called the tower operator and advised him of my decision to make an unusual approach to the
runway with no visual or instrument assistance. There was another pause, and then the tower
operator said, “Understood Gulf Charlie Papa, cleared to land, runway 06, the wind is calm, runway
surface is wet. Good luck, Captain.”
I decided to call the airline operations dispatch on HF radio and advise them of the emergency. I told
Alan to look back into the cabin and check for more smoke as I turned on the HF radio. He
immediately called out, “Smoke Cap, more smoke!” I quickly turned off the HF radio and realized that
this was the problem with the electrical fire and smoke.
I then turned my attention to the approach to the runway at Timehri. I had made a quick notation of
the time of the fire and calculated the estimated flight time back to the airport.
I tasked the co-pilot with the approach and pre-landing checklist and asked him to make sure the
passengers were properly briefed for a possible emergency landing. Then I concentrated on making
my initial approach based solely on time and an estimation of our approximate position to the
We were still at 2.000 feet altitude, and after Alan completed the pre-landing checklist, I started to
slow the Twin Otter and deployed 15-degree flap. We were entirely in instrument conditions and
with no forward visibility whatsoever. Looking at the elapsed time on the clock, I estimated we were
nearly at the airport.
When I felt we were directly over the airport, I proceeded to make a quasi instrument approach and a
procedure turn to runway 06, trying to imitate an ADF approach to the airport. In the middle of the
procedure turn, I started to lose altitude slowly and pulled back on the throttle levers to slow the
aircraft, while trying to visualize the layout and our position relative to the airport. Deploying another
flap setting to 20 degrees, I was now trying to line up on what I was hoping was the centerline of the
We were now descending through 800 feet and still no forward visibility in the rain. I told Alan to
keep his eyes on the flight and engine instruments to ensure we were maintaining a steady flight path
and approach speed. All the while, I was desperately trying to spot any breaks in the cloud cover.
The Twin Otter is possibly the best aircraft for this type of unusual flight maneuver due to its Short
Takeoff and Landing (STOL) capabilities. Just as we descended below 500-feet, I saw lightening of the
cloud and a hint of green, which would be the heavily forested area surrounding the Timehri airport.
We finally broke out of the cloud base at around 430 feet and noticed that we were just crossing the
bend in the river, which was an indication that my procedure turn was almost spot-on, and we were
not far off the runway centerline. The windshield wipers were trying valiantly to wipe away the rain,
and I saw that we were only a few degrees off of runway 06.
I felt I had been holding my breath for what seemed like a long time, and finally allowed myself to
breathe again! The tower operator broke in with, “GCP, I have you in sight and clear to land runway
06.” I noticed then the fire trucks and rescue equipment with flashing lights parked along the side of
I turned slightly to line up on runway 06, pulled back on the throttle levers, and managed a passable
landing onto the concrete surface. I cracked the throttle levers into beta range, but would not need
reverse thrust due to the length of the runway. I slowly applied the brakes, and as we rolled past the
fire trucks, I heard clapping and shouting from the passengers who were happy that we landed safely.
When we arrived at the terminal, every one of the passengers wanted to shake my hand and thank
me for getting them back on the ground alive! What a great feeling of relief for me, and each of
A retired airline pilot, bush pilot, and aviation consultant. Dave started his own Aviation Training company for
new pilots and was the only foreigner approved to start a Flight Training school in China. He marketed HS-125
corporate aircraft nearing the end of his career in Western Canada.
Dave has written and published a true story about his kidnapping in China in 2001. The book – titled
“Kidnapped – A Living Nightmare” is available in paperback and eBook on Amazon. His second book – Bush
Flying – A Pilots Nightmare will be available later this summer.