It doesn’t matter where we are when we smell unexpected smoke because fire can spread rapidly and cause heavy loss of life, and the time in which to prevent this happening is sometimes extremely short.
We all know this. For that reason, the diversion of a Qantas 767 to Mt Isa yesterday when smoke was smelled in the cockpit while flying between Darwin and Brisbane is the normal and required professional response of the pilots to an imminent threat.
The fact that there was no obvious cause of the smoke on landing at Mt Isa is not an issue. The good news is that the crew did what they had to do, and had that smoke been the first sign of an uncontrollable fire in the electrics or in the underfloor stowage area, they were giving the 170 people on board the best possible chance of survival.
There are many incidents like this world wide and quite a few for that matter in Australia in the course of a few years. They usually turn out to be a problem with a galley appliance, or a frayed electrical connection, or contamination by a trace of hydraulic fluid or lubricating oil that has leaked through a faulty seal into the air conditioning system. Sometimes the cause is so transient no evidence to explain it can be found.
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The important thing isn’t the inconvenience of having to leave a 767 using a fork lift in a remote airport that may never had seen a jet of that size before, and waiting for a replacement flight. All that matters is that the emergency drill worked, because one day it will be the difference between life and death.