Where do I begin?...
Saturday, Aug 5, 2006 I spent a couple of hours at the airport re-attaching some rebuilt baffles on the engine after returning from 2-1/2 weeks of vacation. I hadn't had a lot of time to fly this summer - last time was in May - due to heavy priorities at work and home. It had been kind of hot here in Phoenix too and I'd been doing all my work outdoors on the ramp.
After getting everything all buttoned up I wanted to start the engine as it had sat for so long. No go - the battery just wasn't up to it. So I removed the battery and took it home to charge it over the weekend.
My first day back to work was Monday, so I decided to bring the battery with me and install it after work. About 5:45pm I arrived at the airport and proceeded to install the battery. The plane was on its nose as usual when I work in the back seat. After getting the cables hooked up I hopped into the front seat and turned on the master, checking the VM1000 engine monitor to see that the voltage was where it needed to be and turned the fuel valve to the fullest (right) tank. OK, before starting I want to do a walk around and make sure everything was clear. I hopped out of the plane and switched on the nose gear motor to extend the nose gear. After it was out I walked to the front of the plane and as I approached the canard I saw some white/grey smoke drift by the canard. As I looked up I could smell the distinct odor of burning electrical wiring and saw the smoke coming from the top of the cowl.
I raced around to the cockpit and shut the fuel valve off (but didn't think to shut the master switch off) and then in a panic could not remember where my fire extinguisher was. I tore the front seat cushion off thinking it was under my seat (that's where I kept it until I had the plane upholstered). When I didn't see it under the seat, the real panic set in. I called the tower from my cell phone and told them to please send the fire truck to tie down 330, got confirmation and hung up. At this point I still thought it was just some wires burning so I raced to the cowl with my screwdriver and removed the 4 screws temporarily holding the top cowl on. As soon as I removed the cowl flames jumped up between the firewall and the engine. I kept thinking "where is the fire truck?" and looked to see if it was coming but didn't see a thing. The fire was crackling now.
We had a storm moving into the valley that night - typical during that time of year. The winds were picking up from the south and were blowing from the engine to the nose of the plane. I called 911 and told them I needed fire trucks at the Chandler airport immediately - they were already on the way. Seems Chandler Municipal doesn't have a fire truck and that's who the tower called.
I could not see the origin of the flames other than they were coming from that space between the engine and firewall. The winds were blowing the flames out through the NACA scoop and the smoke was turning from grey to black. In almost an instant the flames reached up from the scoop around the aft fuselage. The smoke was billowing black within a matter of a few more seconds. I think this is when I first realized the plane was going to be lost. It was just going so fast. I could hear the sirens faintly in the distance and knew they would never make it in time.
I got in my truck which was parked a couple of feet in front of the nose of the plane and moved it further away. All I could do at this point was watch it go up in flames. The fire trucks arrived but by the time the first drop of water hit the plane it was mostly just a small file of rubble where the fuselage had been. When the fuselage was consumed the plane took a final tip backward onto the winglets. The firemen ended up having to pour foam on the flames as water just wasn't stopping the fire that by this time was mostly engulfing the strakes and inboard wing sections. I noticed the sound of helicopters overhead and looked up to see a couple of local news choppers filming the "breaking story" just at the end of the 6pm newscasts as the thick black smoke poured from the remains.
The wife of an FAA safety investigator just happened to drive by the airport as the plane was just starting to go up. She called her husband and he was on the scene before the flames were out. From first whiff of smoke to no more flames took all of 20 minutes. What was left was a pile of melted goo where the fuselage had been and a bunch of ash blowing around. The wings and spar held together but the structure of the wings was gone except for the outboard two feet or so and the winglets remained upright with hardly any damage. The upper cowl I had removed was intact sitting on the ground next to the left winglet. The engine top side hardly looked any worse for the wear - the flames had all moved forward of the engine - but 2 of the 3 prop blades were mostly gone.
After giving the investigator my report as well as the police and fire officials, I started making plans to get the mess cleaned up. I went home and got some shovels and a broom and returned half an hour later to start shoveling the loose debris into my truck. The airport used their street sweeper to vacuum up much of the small stuff and we dragged the engine/wing hulk forward a bit and wrapped it in a tarp for overnight.
Tuesday morning at 6am my dad and I came to get the rest of it. We used an engine hoist to pull the engine off the firewall and stored it in a friends hangar (friend has a new Cozy in the test flight stages and did a flyby for me as dad and I cut through the spars to separate the wings from the firewall). We cut off the landing gear legs to reduce the weight somewhat and then picked up the firewall piece and laid it in the truck followed by the two wings. After covering it in a tarp we took a slow 45 minute drive through town to the landfill and deposited the remains there.
Nothing was left other than the engine. I did manage to get some salvage money for it. No hull insurance, just liability and medical. It'll probably pay to have the tie down space re-paved as the fire melted the asphalt in the general vicinity. Kind of sad.
If there is anything positive I took away from this experience it was this. As I walked up to the plane that night for the first time after talking to the fire officials, a piece of paper blew across the tarmac and landed at my feet. It was the only thing I could see from the pile of rubble that had any white color to it. I reached down and picked it up - it was a page from the New Testament of the Bible that I always kept in my flight bag, singed around the edges (see picture below). I put it in my pocket and when I got home that night my wife and I took it out and read God's personal, wind delivered message to me. The page was from I Peter and chapter 4. Verses 12-13 in the middle of the page read " Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you; But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy."
I prayed "Thank you Father for protecting me tonight. I'm so thankful this happened while I was on the ground and no one was in the plane with me. Thank you for giving me so much joy in the building and flying of "Blonde Streak". I certainly don't understand what happened or why, but I don't question Your Sovereignty. You know my feelings of hurt, my questions of how did this happen and what went wrong. And while I may never know the reason for why this happened until I am in eternity some day with You, I am content that You know what is best for me."
Below are the pictures the FAA Investigator took of the remains. The final picture is of me carrying the only undamaged part - the upper cowl (I had removed it when trying to find the source of the fire) back to my truck.