Is Your District Ready for an Aircraft Crash?

By Matthew McNabb

Scenario: Your company is dispatched to a fixed-wing aircraft crash into a commercial structure. Heavy smoke is reported to be showing, and there are reports of injuries.

Chief officers: How well have you equipped and trained your crews for this kind of emergency? If you hear this report over the radio, what would be your first action?

Company officers: What is your first priority? How does an aircraft change your tactics? Look at this photo. What is your scene size-up?

Apparatus operators: Based on the photo, where are you going to position? Do you have foam on your rig?

Firefighters: How do you extinguish a fuel fire? Do you know how to gain access to an aircraft? Where is the highest probability of victims in the photo? 

Aircraft crashes are a very real possibility in your district and pose dynamic threats to your community. This article is not intended to be all-inclusive. but a teaching point to focus in on specific tactics and strategies firefighters should consider when toned out to an aircraft crash. I spent eight years as an aircraft firefighter and offer a few main points that you and your crews can train on so that you are ready when that Beechjet 400 crashes into Hank’s Pancake Palace.

Scene Size-Up

The first-in officer must resist the urge that is sometimes called the “candle/moth syndrome,” which is to focus exclusively on the fire. Unless the scene is extremely large, as in a huge wildland fire, the first-in officer should take a quick walk around the incident to view it from all angles. Can the resources at the scene and en route handle this situation?1 An aircraft incident brings with it highly flammable liquid fuels and hazardous materials built within the aircraft. The officer may want to consider calling for additional personnel by sounding a second or third alarm or calling in mutual aid. Specialized crews such as airport, hazmat, and heavy rescue personnel, should also be requested. 

A simple acronym that can be of great assistance when sizing up a scene is the “CAN” report: “Conditions, Actions, and Needs.” Any officer first arriving on scene to an aircraft crash is entering into a hostile environment that will be incredibly stressful and demanding. Report the conditions: “We have smoke showing from a one-story commercial structure with a medium-sized aircraft involved in Side B.” Actions: “Engine 21 is assuming Franklin Command and initiating rescue operations. We have numerous personnel in need of rescue” Needs: “Engine 21 is requesting a 3rd alarm. I need Airport Fire to respond with its foam trailer. Next-in arriving company: Establish a water supply and be fire attack.” 

Every situation will be different. Think about your jurisdiction and how you would handle an aircraft incident. Practice your scene size-up as you drive past local businesses on the way to breakfast or on the way back from the next medical call. Discuss this with your crew; get them thinking.


Look at this photo, which shows an aircraft fire being extinguished with foam. Aircraft are capable of carrying significant volumes of highly flammable fuels within wing tanks and under the belly of the aircraft. Placing water on a jet fuel fire can make the situation worse by pushing the fire and not extinguishing it. Many fuels are lighter than water and will burn on the surface when water is introduced. Using the appropriate foam can achieve a quick knockdown. Additionally, apparatus operators should try to position the apparatus uphill, upwind to prevent running fuel and smoke from involving the apparatus. “In general, foam works by forming a blanket of foam on the surface of burning fuels–both liquid and solid. The foam blanket excludes oxygen, and that stops the burning process. The water in the foam is slowly released as the foam breaks down. This action provides a cooling effect on the fuel. With liquid fuels, the foam blanket also prevents or reduces the release of flammable vapors from the surface of the fuel.” 

Foam works in several ways:

  • Separating: It creates a barrier between the fuel and the fire.
  • Cooling: It lowers the temperature of the fuel and adjacent surfaces.
  • Smothering: It suppresses the release of flammable vapors and, therefore, reduces the possibility of ignition or re-ignition
  • Penetrating: It lowers the surface tension of water and allows it to penetrate deep-seated fires (2)

Many fire departments face a wildland fire threat. Many have responded to this threat with wet water or class A foams. It is important to note that while these are excellent on grass and brush fires, they will not work well on an aircraft fire. Fuel fires require class B foams and, more appropriately, aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) foams. Understanding the different types of foams is an important teaching point in itself for crews to review. For this article, please realize that if your crew rolls on scene to an aircraft on fire, they will need AFFF or a suitable alternative, not the wet water or class A foam we typically bring for grass fires.

Aircraft Shutdown

Ok, you arrive on scene to a working fire with an aircraft involved (view this photo for an idea of the incident scene). The plane is still mostly intact; damage consists of a partially detached flight deck and fire on the left side of the aircraft. Your size-up reveals that the aircraft is still running. You note a large opening in the center of the aircraft fuselage (main part of aircraft). You see both pilot and co-pilot slumped over in the flight deck. What do you do?

Each aircraft has different shutdown procedures. One very effective way for firefighters to shut down aircraft engines if they are still running is to FOD (Foreign Object Debris) them out. You do this by directing a hose stream directly at the engines; the water will choke out the engines and shut them down. Crews can then make access to the flight deck and bring the throttles down to idle (view an image of an aircraft throttle here). This is an extremely hazardous process, which the crew should evaluate carefully.  Note: in fighter aircraft, the area where the pilot(s) sit is referred to as a “cockpit.” In larger aircraft, the area where the pilot(s) sit is referred to as the “flight deck.” Crews can bring the engines down to an idle by pulling back on the throttles, usually located between the pilot and co-pilot at knee level. Be careful: pulling too far back can put the engines into reverse. Firefighters can then disconnect the seat belts and oxygen hoses to extract the air crew to safety.

When engines are placed at idle, the threat is greatly reduced. Technicians or aircraft crews can then be called on to further shut down the aircraft, or crews can FOD out the engines fully with hose streams. Chief officers can communicate shutdown procedures to operating crews inside the aircraft in full protective gear. Memorizing every aircraft’s shutdown procedure is unrealistic, but pulling throttles to idle and unhooking flight crew and passengers is a solid tactic for firefighters.

Final Note

If you think an aircraft incident will not happen to you, think about the 53-year-old man who flew his private aircraft into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, in February 2010. The building held approximately 200 employees (see a photo of the scene here).

Please take the time to review your department’s standard operating procedures and your local aircraft traffic so that you are ready when you get the call of an aircraft crash and your community is looking to you to fix it. If you are close to an airport, schedule intercompany training with it. Many airport fire departments train heavily on aircraft rescue and firefighting. They can be an incredible resource when you need them; if a crash occurs on the airfield, they may be calling you. Don’t be caught off guard. Your community is counting on you.


1. Goodson, Carl and Marsha Sneed (Eds.) 1998. Fire Department Company Officer. Stillwater, OK: International Fire Service Training Association: Fire Protection Publications: Oklahoma State University.

2. Goodson, Carl and Lynne Murnane (Eds.) 2008. Essentials of Fire Fighting 5th Ed. Stillwater, OK: International Fire Service Training Association: Fire Protection Publications: Oklahoma State University.
Matthew McNabb is a firefighter with the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department, where he is assigned to Engine 33 on the city’s West side. He has a Master’s degree in fire and emergency management administration from Oklahoma State University. He has an AAS degree from the Community College of the Air Force and a BS degree in fire science from the University of Maryland University College. He is a veteran of Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. He is an adjunct instructor for Kaplan and Utah Valley University . 
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