Hickam AFB Fire Department Also Protects Honolulu Airport
From single-engine private aircraft to the world’s largest jets, the Boeing 747 and the Lockheed C-5A Galaxy, the men of the fire department at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii are prepared to handle any emergency.
One of only a handful of Air Force units responsible for the fire protection of an international airport, the 102 men of the department provide fire protection for more than 25,000 takeoffs and landings monthly at Honolulu International.
Loss of life low
The department, comprised of 21 military personnel and 81 civilians, is responsible for providing fire protection and crash and rescue support for the Hickam/Honolulu Airport Complex. At Hickam alone, the department is responsible for assets valued in excess of $119 million.
For the last 13 years that Booker T. Wilson has been fire chief at Hickam, the airport/base complex has had an extremely low loss of lives and property through fires. Over the last 20 years, the department has been cited by civilian airlines and military authorities for its excellence.
Agreement with Hawaii
Fire protection at Honolulu International Airport is performed under an agreement with the State of Hawaii and is primarily aimed at aircraft crash and rescue support. But should a fire develop anywhere in the airport complex, the Air Force firemen fight it until the Honolulu Fire Department takes over.
Providing this protection requires a lot of training. In fiscal year 1972, the Hickam Fire Department conducted more than 13,000 hours of training. Included in the training is a review of pre-fire plans containing detailed instructions for attacking types of fires in different aircraft. Included in the plans are standby positions for every piece of fire equipment.
“We have four crash plans for every aircraft type that transits or is stationed at the Hickam/Honolulu complex,” noted Senior Master Sergeant James C. Hill, the base deputy fire chief. “The four plans include wheelsup landings, engine fires, fuselage fires and one on a general variety of fires and crashes.
“We were one of the first Air Force units to use the new aqueous filmforming foam (AFFF),” stated Hill.
An innovation of Hickam’s fire fighters are two foam removal trucks. These are ordinary pickup trucks equipped with large squeegees. They can clear foam from a runway in less than 15 minutes and save numerous manhours previously involved in washing it off. The trucks are driven sideby-side down the center of a runway pushing the foam away. Then they are driven up the sides of the runway and it is cleared, ready for use.
High expansion foam also is used at Hickam. In one of the hangars, this foam is dispensed from large nozzle heads in the ceiling. If a fire occurs, the hangar doors close, the heads start dispensing the foam, and within 4 1/2 minutes there is a 22-foot layer.
“Fighting a fire after it starts is only part of our job,” noted Wilson. “We try to prevent fires by monitoring problems such as hot brakes and blown tires.”
Lookout towers manned
To watch for conditions that cause fires, the Hickam fire fighters man two lookout towers 24 hours a day on either side of the main runway, giving them a full view of all three runways in the complex.
“The only fatal accident we had this year was spotted from one of these towers,” Hill recalled. “An observer saw a single-place light plane having problems on takeoff and scrambled the fire trucks. They were at the scene within seconds after the plane crashed near the end of the runway. But it was just too late to save the pilot.”
The fire department has a variety of apparatus ranging from crash trucks carrying 2300 gallons of water and 200 gallons of AFFF to ramp-patrol vehicles carrying 40 gallons of chlorobromomethane. The five major crash trucks are backed up by two 1500-gallon-capacity water distributors and two small trailers capable of applying high expansion foam.
The three ramp-patrol vehicles stand by during takeoffs and landings to be right on the scene to attempt to extinguish any fires before they do major damage. Fire fighters spent more than 8000 man hours of routine runway standby in the fiscal year 1972.
The remaining equipment includes one carbon dioxide truck, a rescue truck, and two runway foaming units.
U.S. Air Force photos.
Four fire stations are manned by the department. The two across from each other where the three runways intersect are the primary crash stations, and they are backed up by two stations on the Hickam side of the complex. The latter additionally provide structural fire protection for the 2700-acre Hickam Air Force Base.
In addition to protecting the lives and property of the Hickam/Honolulu Airport Complex, the department gives lectures and demonstrations to the public on a variety of subjects concerning fires and fire safety. Also, an inspection team makes periodic checks of all base facilities for fire hazards.
This unique Air Force fire department is also in the space program. It provides firemen aboard the space tracking ships USNS Sunnyvale and USNS Longview working with the Pacific Missile Range at Barking Sands, Kauai. The firemen provide crash and rescue support for helicopters of the two ships.
Forgetful pilot rescued
The success of Hickam’s firemen is evidenced by more than 40 official recognitions from civilian airlines and military authorities.
One of the more recent incidents cited involved a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. It was proceeding for takeoff when an engine exploded. The pilot forgot to take off his chin strap when he climbed out and was hanging on the burning aircraft by the strap.
“The quick-thinking Sergeant Hill rushed to the bird and released the pilot,” related Wilson. “He carried him to safety and then went back to rescue the copilot, who had injured himself exiting the aircraft.”
The department’s fire fighting and rescue work isn’t always done on the complex. Two years ago, a small interisland passenger plane was coming in for a landing at Honolulu when Hickam’s fire department received word the plane might not have enough fuel to make the airport.
The trucks were standing by on the runway when the observation tower lost sight of the small plane over Keehi Lagoon, adjacent to the airport. The firemen raced to the area and saw the plane go down in the drink.
“Our firemen quickly stripped their suits off and started swimming to the fast sinking aircraft. On the way out, they sighted a log and took it with them. Only the tail section was now above water. The men rescued all six people aboard and pulled them to shore on the log,” Wilson related.
The firemen, who were all civilians, received the highest award a federal civilian can receive—the Exceptional Service Award.
Although fighting fires is a serious business it also has its lighter moments. The chief remembers when an airliner was coming into the airport. The wheels locked on touchdown, blowing rubber everywhere and causing hydraulic lines to break and ignite. One of the fire department’s observation towers noticed the burning and Hickam’s equipment rolled out to the aircraft.
At this time the pilot didn’t know what was going on, but saw the fire trucks rushing toward him. He opened the window to see why just as the trucks arrived and started spraying foam. The pilot still didn’t know what the problem was, but when he got a cockpit full of foam, he started to wise up.
“The expression on his face was priceless,” stated the chief, “but after he found out what was going on, he couldn’t thank us enough for our quickness.”