The second most intense event in aviation, short of having an emergency develop on your own aircraft, may be to hear another pilot on the frequency dealing with an emergency of his or her own. It certainly concentrates one's attention.
This morning, not very long after departing KVKX and climbing to 7,000 feet MSL, we (that's me and N631S) were crossing Delaware and doing business with Dover Approach.
About ten minutes later, an unexpected call: "Dover Approach, REACH 7045, at 5,000, we need a straight-in visual to Runway 32." I took note - wasn't that the call sign of the C-5 that just departed?
The controller responded calmly, saying, "REACH 7045, I understand you have an IFE. You are cleared for the visual, Runway 32."
IFE? In Flight Emergency? The C-5 must have reported an emergency to Washington Center and turned back to Dover. Center had undoubtedly called Dover Approach with a "heads up."
The C-5 Galaxy responded with, "Understand cleared visual Runway 32. We'll be on the ground in ten minutes. We'd like a truck standing by."
From Approach, "REACH 7045, are you declaring an emergency? If we need to roll the equipment, that's the only way they'll respond."
"OK, yes, we are declaring an emergency," said the Galaxy pilot, and Approach asked, "What is the nature of your emergency."
"We have smoke and fumes in the aircraft."
Approach asked, as they must, "Say souls on board and fuel on board in time," which elicited "10...no, 11 souls on board and three hours of fuel."
OK, deep breath. Remember Swissair 111. Remember the recent UPS crash in the Middle East. This is as serious as a heart attack. This can turn completely to...well, you know...in a matter of minutes. At this point, I'm rooting for the C-5 crew. The guy handling the radios sounds cool and calm. They have many more options than the crew of the UPS flight that augured in recently; they have access to the cargo deck and they have troops ("11 souls on board") that can try to attack the problem. Still...get it on the ground!
"REACH 7045, contact tower on 126.35."
"Tower on 26.35...REACH 7045." I reached toward my Number 2 Comm radio to dial in the Tower frequency but heard on Comm #1, "Skylane 31 Sierra, contact Atlantic City Approach on 126.4." Damn! "31 Sierra, A.C. Approach 26.4, thanks and so long," and a quick switch. "Good morning, Atlantic City Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra level 7,000." As I waited for Atlantic City to respond to my check-in I dialed up Dover Tower on #2.
"Skylane 631 Sierra, good morning, Atlantic City altimeter is 30.22." I no sooner said, "30.22 for 31 Sierra" when I heard over the Dover frequency, "Tower, REACH 7045 will clear the runway and then stop to meet the trucks." They had to be getting close. From Tower, "REACH 7045, will you clear at Charlie or at Golf?" Good for the Tower controller! He's getting the information he needs to direct the emergency equipment to the correct taxiway. These guys are well trained! "We'll clear at Charlie," was the answer.
Perhaps a minute later, "REACH 7045 is clear of the runway." From Tower, "REACH 7045, the equipment is with you, contact ground on 118.87."
And that was that! An Air Force crew had a really interesting morning, and I got to listen in. Everyone involved sounded sharp and in control. And luck was with them today. This was a live, in-the-moment reminder that there is only one acceptable response to smoke in the aircraft - land, NOW! We fly and we learn.