Small Plane Crash Response in Illinois

By MICHAEL J. LOPINA

Since assuming responsibility for fire and EMS protection of Lewis University Airport (KLOT) in 2003, the Lockport Township (IL) Fire Protection District (LTFPD) has provided the best possible protection for Illinois’ fourth busiest airport for takeoffs and landings (2008 Illinois Department of Transportation statistics). In 2006, we trained our first group of Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) personnel and acquired two 1992 Amertek ARFF rigs from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Since then, we’ve certified 12 personnel as aircraft rescue firefighters and provided the entire 78-member LTFPD with basic ARFF training.

ARFF personnel follow Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 139 guidelines for annual training, whereas all department members are trained annually on the ARFF standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and several practical scenarios to keep up their skills. As with ARFF, department members not on a specialty team receive basic first responder training in technical rescue and other disciplines. It is this basic training in ARFF and technical rescue that provided the foundation for a rapid response and aggressive rescue of two victims onboard a 1976 Cessna 210 that crashed about a half mile northeast of KLOT on June 26, 2011. It was reported that the plane had just taken off from Runway 9 and was circling back around to land on Runway 27 because of apparent engine trouble.

At approximately 1430 hours, WESCOM (our regional 911 center) received a call for a plane down near State Route 53 and Airport Road in Romeoville, Illinois. Callers reported that a plane had crashed into power lines and hit a tree and aircraft passengers had possibly been ejected. WESCOM immediately dispatched our predetermined ARFF response to the area given by the caller.

The response team included Engine 1, Engine 5 with Rescue 5 (ARFF rig), Tower Ladder 6 with Rescue 6 (ARFF rig), Ambulance 1, Battalion 1, Plainfield Tanker 1917 (with 3,000 gallons of water/180 AR-AFFF foam), and Romeoville Ambulance 2114. Normally, Lockport Engine 1 operates a 900-gallon/100-gallon AR-AFFF pumper, but this time the crew was in a reserve engine with no foam. Therefore, WESCOM added Engine 3, Engine 1’s twin, to the response. Within five minutes, Tower 6, Rescue 6, and Battalion 1 arrived on scene from their firehouse three miles away (Figure 1) and quickly realized they had a small plane down contacting live wires and, despite the initial reports of ejections, two victims onboard.

Figure 1.
This map shows where the crash was in relation to LTFPD Station 6 and the airport.

Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), the regional power company, was requested for an immediate response because of the power line issue. The officer on Rescue 6 (cross-staffed by personnel from Tower 6) had his driver position the rig on the sector 1 side of the aircraft and directed Rescue 5 to take the sector 4 side; Engine 3 was instructed to take the sector 3 side and drop a foam handline (Figure 2). Although unable to physically contact the victims because of the power line issue, crews determined that the pilot was alive but unconscious and the passenger was conscious but badly injured. They also found that fuel was leaking from the wing directly onto the passenger.

Figure 2.
A diagram of the crash scene and vehicle placement.

Despite the urge to effect an immediate rescue, companies knew that any attempt to move the power line off the aircraft would result in catastrophe, whether igniting a fire or electrocuting someone. Therefore, they focused on how best to effect the rescue once power was cut. Tower 6 was assigned stabilization, Engine 1 and Ambulance 21 were assigned the passenger side, and Engine 5 and Ambulance 1 were assigned the pilot. Rescues 5 and 6, Engine 3, and the Plainfield Tanker provided fire protection duties. All cribbing, struts, and extrication and EMS equipment were readied while personnel reassured the occupants they would be cared for as soon as it was safe to do so. Additionally, based on the extent of injuries rescuers could assess and assume were present, two medivac helicopters were called and were requested to land at KLOT; Lockport Engine 2 was assigned to the landing zone.

(1) The aircraft being stabilized and the extrication equipment used. Crews prepare to remove the pilot from the aircraft after performing a rapid extrication and take him to the medivac landing zone. The extrication power unit was placed as far as possible from the aircraft because of the fuel leak; ARFF rigs were ready to flow foam if there had been an ignition. Vapor suppression was considered but not needed. [Photos courtesy of the Lockport Township (IL) Fire Protection District.]

ComEd arrived and cut the power within 15 minutes of the original call. Once the “all clear” was given, crews went to work rapidly to remove both occupants in less than five minutes. EMS crews provided rapid transport to the landing zone. From the time the power was cut until the helicopters lifted off was less than 25 minutes. Both helicopters took their patients to Level I trauma centers for care where, tragically, the pilot died from his injuries several hours later.

After being paged by WESCOM on the initial call, I responded to the scene and arrived just as the helicopters were leaving KLOT. I immediately met with the battalion chief to ascertain what had occurred up to that point and was informed by Rescue 5’s driver that a responding police officer had found two witnesses to the crash. I located the witnesses and took down as much information as I could about the crash to pass on to the responding FAA investigator. The witnesses provided great detail about what happened and what they had seen in the moments leading up to the crash. In addition to taking the witnesses’ statements, I also interviewed all personnel involved in the rescue and treatment of the victims to determine what had been done and what was removed from the aircraft.

(2) The final resting spot of the aircraft. After clipping the top of a tree and hitting the street, the aircraft careened over an embankment into a tree where the engine was ripped from the aircraft, landing about 30 feet away. The force of the impact also ripped the pilot’s seat from the floor of the aircraft. Both the pilot and the passenger were restrained.

With the victims removed and the area secured by police, all companies were released from their duties except Tower 6, Rescue 6, Engine 3, and me. We then went on standby until the on-site investigation was completed and the aircraft was removed to the airport for further investigation. An airport representative arrived and was asked to secure a hanger for the aircraft and contact KLOT’s heavy towing company to remove the aircraft. By 2030 hours, the aircraft was loaded on a flatbed tow truck and removed; the incident was secured and terminated. After interviewing crews and surveying the scene, I concluded that the high quality of the response left virtually no room for improvement and nothing further was required.

Of the 15 personnel responding, only Rescue 6’s driver and Engine 3’s officer were ARFF certified. The dedication and attention all personnel gave to the specialty team first responder training was evident at this incident; it encompassed both ARFF and technical rescue. The teamwork and incident action plan devised was second to none and showed that training on these disciplines pays off. Protecting the fourth busiest airport in Illinois, one of the busiest inland waterways in the country, and three major rail lines demands LTFPD personnel remain on top of its game; this incident proved that we had not taken that challenge lightly and it could not have been better executed. From the time that companies arrived until the termination of the incident, all personnel knew their roles and performed them nearly flawlessly.

(3) The ambulances are approaching the landing zone as the medivac helicopters arrive. In addition to the rescue and fire suppression equipment being set up prior to the rescue taking place, EMS crews had their equipment readied to facilitate rapid treatment and transport once extrication was complete.

One of the biggest mistakes we make in the fire service is not expecting the unexpected. Too often, I hear the fallacy, “That will never happen here” or “We don’t need to train on that subject.” Once again, here is proof to the contrary. Although, in terms of aviation accidents, this was not a major event, it was a major incident for our crews; none of us had ever responded to a plane crash in our careers. However, because we train regularly and we EXPECT this to happen, we performed as though this was a routine call. Expecting the unexpected and realistic training that deals with “unexpected” scenarios are crucial for successful outcomes. Also, sharing information with each other to show that, in fact, these things can and do happen to all of us helps better prepare our personnel for these events.

Practice with different scenarios and preplan with your airport and the surrounding area so that your members know which hazards may be present in a crash. The crash detailed in this article occurred between a used car lot and several businesses within a few hundred feet north and a conference center/chapel about one hundred feet south of the crash site. Again, because we anticipate crashes occurring in less-than-ideal areas, our ARFF SOG is written to include the possibility of an aviation incident’s becoming a technical rescue, dive, or hazardous materials incident. I encourage all first responders working at or near an airport in their community to prepare themselves for this type of event.

MICHAEL J. LOPINA is a lieutenant/paramedic with the Lockport Township (IL) Fire Protection District and commander of the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) Division. He is also Section 4 manager of the ARFF Working Group and is the owner of Firefighter Education Group, LLC, which provides ARFF first responder training and several other classes.

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