Quick-thinking engineer stops smoke in plane cabin

Cape Town - A quick-thinking engineer flying home from Ethiopia averted possible disaster when he saw smoke billowing out of a bag in the cabin.

Thanks to 53-year-old Samir Buffkins, the Air Ethiopia flight was able to reach Cape Town on Tuesday without incident. 

It was about three hours into the relatively packed morning flight when drama played out thousands of metres above sea level.

“I was sitting in my seat at the back, designing a new stove. I could hear people panicking and moving away so I looked up and there was white smoke,” Buffkins told News24.

“There was not a damn I was going to go down without a fight so I decided to investigate. I am an ex senior advisor to Eskom so I have worked with much more dangerous stuff.”

He noticed smoke was coming from a male passenger’s small bag on the cabin floor about six seats ahead.

The bag was hot to the touch and he thought something may have short-circuited. 

He asked an air hostess to use a fire extinguisher but the bag did not stop smoking. 

Buffkins cautiously carried the package to the back pantry. He placed it on a metal tray so it could be sprayed again.

That also didn’t work.

Throwing caution to the wind, he emptied the contents.

“On investigating I saw that two lithium ion cellphone batteries were stuck together which were short-circuiting.”

The batteries had built up heat and melted parts of the cables and bag.

Burning his hands, he separated the battery bank and “the situation returned to normal”.

Some skin was burnt off but he got off lightly because he “had hard hands”.

“The situation could have been far worse because the batteries could have caused a mini explosion.”

Buffkins, founder and CEO of Psiclone Hybrid Technologies, had been travelling home from a historic business trip.

After launching the world’s first micro wind energy generator in August, he installed Ethiopia’s first generator of that kind.

He took the flight in his stride.

“It was scary to the normal layman but I sat down and it was back to the drawing board.”

Air Ethiopia did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

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