A Southwest Airlines 737 Max made a rapid return to Baltimore Tuesday morning just minutes after takeoff after a fire warning horn sounded in the cockpit. Southwest Flight 4136 left Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport headed for Phoenix at 6:43 but was in the air only briefly before the fire warning bell and airspeed over speed alert began to sound. Other people on the radio frequency could hear the audible warnings blaring as the pilots turned the plane around and landed.
Emergency vehicles were waiting on the runway as the plane touched down. The pilots requested that firefighters check for smoke or signs of fire.
Jonathan Dean, communications manager for BWI said he did not how many emergency vehicles greeted the returning aircraft but downplayed the event as a “precautionary alert” which he said, “happens from time to time at airports across the country.”
That may be but as they are happening, pilots take inflight fire warnings as seriously as a heart attack. As I wrote in my book, The Crash Detectives, fire, smoke and airplanes don’t mix. Capt. James Blaszczak, now retired from United told me, “If there is any indication of smoke or fire, the definition of eternity is from now until we get this airplane on the ground.”
Pilots take a fire threat seriously because an inflight fire can quickly turn into a catastrophe.
On a Swissair flight from New York to Geneva in 1998, pilots mistook smoke in the cockpit to be a minor air-conditioning issue. Trying to identify the source delayed their response to what turned out to be an electrical fire in the space above the cockpit ceiling where highly flammable insulation material was burning. The fire spread quickly. Just 21 minutes passed between the first smell of smoke and the plane slamming into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing all 229 aboard.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that pilots dealing with fire have between five and 35 minutes to get the plane on the ground.
The crew of Southwest Flight 4136 never got higher than 11 hundred feet and was in the air a total of 33 minutes.
Southwest Airlines has more than sixty-eight 737 Max aircraft in its fleet and another 360 on order.
Recognizing that passengers may be wary of an airplane that had two fatal crashes and was grounded by safety authorities for nearly two years, the airline is reassuring its passengers that the Max is safe. In a letter posted on the airline’s website, airline CEO Gary Kelly wrote that “thousands of experts around the globe, have convinced me that the MAX is ready for us to safely fly once again.”
Still, the 737 Max is under close scrutiny, not just from passengers but from the people who fly them. A Southwest pilot told me he felt confident in the airplane and the training he received before the planes were returned to service. Another, commenting on Flight 4136’s return to the airport told me, operational irregularities might not get so much attention on other aircraft but the two alarms triggering on the 737 Max might understandably put the crew on edge.
In a statement, Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said a component of the warning horn was replaced by mechanics at Baltimore and the airplane was returned to service. “The crew landed safely (an emergency was never declared) and taxied the aircraft to a gate under its own power. A different aircraft was brought in and customers continued the flight to Phoenix.”
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.