I had an "adventure" last weekend while flying a rented Cessna 152 on a short cross-country. It was the first time in a few months that I had flown a 152 because all my IFR training has been in a 172SP.
The flight started out fine, we took off, opened our VFR flight plan, and picked up flight following for the hour long flight. After almost an hour of peaceful flying, past gliders and over lakes, we finally passed our last VOR checkpoint and had the airport in sight. At this point we canceled flight following and proceeded to close our flight plan in the air. Non of this seemed to be an issue until a few seconds after switching to the airport advisory frequency.
Moments after re-tuning the radio I began to smell a funny oder. Next thing I know there was smoke coming from behind the instrument panel. By this time we were almost at the airport setting up for the 45 to enter the pattern. At the first sign of smoke and possible fire all my training kicked in. I immediately turn off all the lights and avionics, except the main radio. Next, was to identify the best place to land, which in our case was our destination airport. After that, I proceeded to broadcast the situation on the airport advisory frequency and request that all aircraft in the area move out of the way for a precautionary landing. By expediting our decent to the runway using a slip we were able to get to ground in less then five minutes and land with surprising grace. The smoke had stopped by this point and we were able to taxi all the way to the parking area, without any problem.
This emergency, which turned out to be no more then a slightly frightening precautionary landing, made me realize how important all the emergency training that is done in the private pilot training program really is. The moment the smoke appeared, my mind when into emergency checklist mode. I did not perform every item on the electrical fire perfectly but I was surprised at how quickly those procedures came back to me when I needed them. I knew what had to be done to get us safely to the ground.
The next time I went up for a lesson with my instructor, StavingCFI, we practiced emergency procedures. He made sure I knew the importance of the emergency briefing and knew the minimum altitude from which I would be able to execute a return to the runway in case of engine failure on takeoff. These are two things that can save your life in an emergency.
Here is a summery of what I learned from that lesson. In your emergency briefing you need to know which direction the wind is coming from so that if the engine fails on takeoff you will turn into the wind, and you also need to know at what altitude you will be able to make it back to the runway. These are two things you must say out-loud during your emergency briefing. If you say them you will know them.
I hope that everyone who reads this will realize that if they have never practiced emergency procedures before or haven't gotten some training recently, that now is a good time to go up with an instructor and practice all your emergency procedure. Try pulling the throttle to idle at 800 or even 500 ft AGL and seeing if you can make it back to the runway. Try this on a day with a light, but present, crosswind. When practicing this also try turning both into and with the wind. You will be surprised at what happens when you turn in different directions. This type of training and memorizing of emergency procedures will make you a much safer pilot. You never know when smoke will fill the cabin, the engine will fail, or the vacuum pump will take the day off.
Be Safe: Know what you will do when your beautify flight becomes an unexpected review of emergency procedures.