Los Angeles strives to maintain airport safety record

Los Angeles strives to maintain airport safety record

City fire fighters plan and train for protection of nation’s second busiest air terminal

Los Angeles Fire Department crash crews at International Airport laid a 1,680-foot-long foam blanket on runway preparatory to belly-landing of this United Air Lines DC-7 with 16 aboard —L.A.F.D. photo by R. G. MacNeil


EVERY two and one-quarter minutes, 365 days and nights a year, a plane lands or takes off at Los Angeles International Airport. To the Los Angeles Fire Department, responsible for fire protection at the nation’s second busiest air terminal, this average figure represents an air crash fire potential occurring more than 316,000 times last year alone.

In terms of life hazard, more than 5,800,000 passengers—over 16,000 on an average day—traveled through International Airport in 1959 and it is estimated that by 1970 the terminal will serve as many as 23 million passengers a year. Yet the field has maintained a perfect safety record of no passenger fatalities since 1947.

How long such a record can be maintained is pure speculation, for the problem of providing fire protection at airports is complicated by the fact that no genuinely satisfactory method of preventing fire and averting loss of life in the specialized field of air crash fire fighting has yet been devised.

It is estimated that half the passengers of a burning aircraft may be expected to survive the first three minutes. The Los Angeles Fire Department crash operation is intended to provide the solution to this seemingly impossible critical time element. Their philosophy of crash fire fighting is to “discharge as much extinguishing agent as you can as fast as you can.”

At present, two fire stations are located on the 3,000-acre Los Angeles International property. One, a fourpiece facility, designated Fire Station No. 80, is situated almost at the geographical center of the field. The other, Fire Station No. 95, is at International Road and Century Boulevard and houses a pumper and aerial ladder.

In terms of the air crash fire fighting problem alone, the two stations are responsible for incidents along more than 5 1/2 miles of runways.

At the time of this writing, 17 airlines serve the airport, and three more carriers are scheduled to start service by mid-1960. At least three additional international carriers are seeking to serve the area within the next year.

Nerve center of the airport’s fire protection system is Fire Station 80.

Air crash and rescue strategy is centered around a rig designated Crash 80. The 21-ton piece of foam and/or water pumping apparatus was specially designed and is painted “Intemational Yellow” for quick spotting on the ground or from the air. The massive crash wagon is a 10-wheeler with all-wheel drive. Its crew consists of a captain, an auto fireman (driver), two turret operators (who ride behind the captain and driver) and three rescue men who ride the tailboard.

Powered by a 324-hp motor, it mounts, in addition, a pair of engines each driving a 750-gpm centrifugal pump. Heavy appliances for foam or water discharge consists of two turret guns mounted atop the cab with infinitely variable fog to solid stream nozzles. Mounted at front bumper level are three “ground-sweep” foam nozzles.

Total load discharge time for Crash 80 alone is shown to be two minutes. Practical operation under full-scale use enables Crash and Tank 80’s crews to count upon a maximum of 5 1/2 minutes of discharge from the tank capacities of 4,000 gallons of water and 165 gallons of liquid foam solution.

The communications system in the apparatus incorporates standard twoway fire department radio. In addition, a two-way transmitter-receiver tuned to aircraft control tower frequencies enables Crash 80’s captain to monitor conversations between the tower and the pilot and to communicate directly with the tower. In addition, the captain, from his elevated seat beside the driver, commands an over-all view and can direct outside operations by using a PA system or radio.

Air crash and rescue strategy at Los Angeles International Airport is centered around Crash 80. The 21-ton crash wagon is a 10-wheeler with all-wheel drive—L.A.F.D. photo by D. A. MortonHot fire drill on B-45 hulk by officers and crew of Crash 80. Note hose reel pivoting out from body. Hose line is fed through fair leads mounted on top of front bumper-L.A.F.D. photo by Georye W. Homer

No. 2 in the bulwark is Tank 80, also built to fire department specifications. Carrying a complement of an auto fireman (driver) and a rescue man, the rig is larger than Crash 80. It carries 2,500 gallons of water and is primarily intended as a backup water supply rig for Crash 80, al- though the tank is equipped with two foam eductors, enabling crash crewmen to take off two foam lines.

Folded in Tank 80’s hose bed are 500 feet of 1 1/2-inch hose line and 200 feet of 3 1/2-inch line. Mounted on either side of the apparatus arc roof extension ladders. For utmost speed in making hookups, the apparatus is equipped with a “quick-connect” which enables a hose connection to be made to a port at the rear of Crash 80 in less than 10 seconds.

Because of the peculiar sand and adobe terrain of International Airport, the all-wheel drive and special tires of both Crash and Tank 80 permit them to travel the sometimes soft ground with relative ease.

Third in the airport line of defense is Squad 80 with a complement of a single auto fireman (driver). The rig carries 400 feet of 1 -inch and 600 feet of l!£-inch hose, plus 200 pounds of carbon dioxide manifolded into its hose reel. Dry chemical also is carried. The apparatus is equipped with a wide range of forcible entry and rescue tools and equipment, including specially shielded axes, pry bars and bolt cutters.

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Equally important in the over-all fire protection strategy is Engine 80, a triple combination 1,250 – gallon pumper. Its manpower consists of a captain, engineer (driver) and at least three firemen. Whereas most pumpers in the Los Angeles Fire Department carry between 1,200 and 1,500 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose, Engine 80 carries 1,800 feet because its lays to hydrants along tlie perimeter of the field are considerably longer than standard fire fighting practice.

In addition to these four pieces of basic air crash and rescue service rigs, a foam pumper is housed in Station 80. The apparatus carries 200 gallons of bulk liquid foam, plus ladders and miscellaneous rescue gear.

Fire Station No. 95, located on the outer edge of the field slightly better than a mile east of Station 80, houses a 1,250 – gallon triple combination pumper, manned by four to five men, plus a late model 65-foot aerial ladder. The truck company maintains a constant complement of between five and six men and is primarily intended for manpower during air crash incidents.

In addition to their air crash and rescue capabilities, both Engine and Truck 95 have a large airport industrial area to protect. Some 285 industries with a payroll in excess of $300 million annually are located within a 1-mile radius of the airport.

Precisely planned air crash fireprotection strategy at International Airport incorporates speed, teamwork, and a thorough knowledge of aircraft, together with a facile ability with rescue and forcible entry tools which are incessantly drilled into the crack personnel.

The excellence of the system starts in the airport control tower. When an aircraft emergency requiring crash wagon aid occurs, the control tower operator merely picks up a telephone and is automatically connected with Station 80, as well as the West Los Angeles Signal Office of the fire department. The instant the control tower phone is lifted, a steady alarm bell rings throughout Station 80 and a light flashes on the phone in the station’s business office.

So precise is the turnout training at Station 80, that crash crewmen are already pulling on their protective clothing and fire hoods and auto firemen are revving up the apparatus engines while the “floor watch” man is obtaining information from the tower. (Standard LAFD procedure is for a captain to receive the alarm information from the dispatcher, but in air crash practice precious seconds are saved by the “floor watch” man who is generally closest to the central tower phone.)

By prearrangement with the tower, only brief information as to the nature of the emergency is given. More complete details are radioed to Crash 80 when it pulls out of the station and onto the field. The control tower operator gives three details of the emergency: (1) Type of plane; (2) Runway involved; (3) Nature of emergency. This information enables the captain of Crash 80 to determine the position he will take on the field, and he can make a reasonably accurate estimate as to where the plane— depending upon its size and nature of the trouble—is likely to come to a stop.

Response within seconds

Turnout time has been estimated at under 40 seconds from the time alarm rings. Even before the crash wagons leave the station their radios are operating. As they begin to take up their position and the captain ascertains wind direction, the control tower notifies Crash 80 of other pertinent information such as the number of passengers aboard; amount and type of fuel, and perhaps which landing gear has developed a malfunction. This additional information also is used by the captain of Crash 80 to deteimine whether to notify the West Los Angeles Signal Office to dispatch extra companies and call for ambulances.

As station 80 is turning out, the West Los Angeles Signal Office is dispatching the chief of the 16th Battalion (whose territory includes the airport); Truck 95; and in cases where aircraft are directly involved in the incident, Engine 95, and nearby Engine 5, located 1 1/2 miles away.

Standard International Airport crash practice calls for Station 80’s apparatus to maintain a relatively tight line of single file as they proceed to the scene of the emergency to take up a position closest to where the incoming aircraft is likely to stop. Although all apparatus maintains radio communication with each other, a tight unit of fire and rescue forces makes for compactness and also eases the control tower’s problem in radioing them clearance to cross runways while responding to the scene of the emergency.

Assuming that an aircraft is down and fully involved, the following operational strategy has been evolved:

The crash wagons approach at full speed from the windward. When Crash 80 (rated at 50 m.p.h.), the lead unit, is between 60 and 70 feet from the fire and still moving it slows to 5 miles per hour—its captain orders one of the two turret men behind him to open up one of the roof turrets and direct a straight stream to the fuselage where the life hazard is concentrated. Although each turret has a capability of directing a stream up to 130 feet, the foam “shot” directed by the turretman (who stands on a platform so that his body from the waist up is above the cab roof) has the effect of determining whether Crash 80 is on target.

Once zeroed in on the fuselage the problem is to keep the skin from burning through, or if it is ruptured to prevent spread of fire, heat and smoke into the pilot’s and passengers’ compartments. At this time, the second turret is put into operation and as Crash 80 slowly advances toward the fire, the turret men switch over to variable pattern foam streams as the fire conditions warrant. Meanwhile, the captain may activate the ground sweeps to attack the fire on the ground and under the fuselage and wings.

Skilled coordination required

Coming closer to the burning aircraft, the turret gunners build a foam pathway along either side of the fuselage so as to provide an avenue of escape and to cut down radiated heat which by this time may be threatening to melt the fuselage skin. The turret guns are discharging 300 gallons of foam apiece per minute. (It is commonly accepted that foam expands 10 times as it leaves the nozzle; hence it can be said that each turret is discharging 3000 gallons of foam per minute.) When Crash 80 is about 10 feet from the blazing aircraft it stops.

The other crash rigs are simultaneously performing the following evolutions:

  1. Tank 80 quarters on the right side of Crash 80, about 50 feet from the burning aircraft. The rescue man quickly breaks out the 3 1/2-inch soft suction “quick connect” and joins it to the port at the rear of Crash 80.
  2. Squad 80 quarters on the left side of Crash 80 and begins breaking out all necessary rescue and forcible entry equipment.
  3. Engine 80 lays a 2 1/2-inch line from the closest hydrant to Tank 80, and augments Tank 80’s water supply.
  4. The foam rig connects a line into Crash 80’s hopper and immediately begins to pump a direct supply of foam solution.
  5. All available manpower from Engine 80, Truck and Engine 95 report to the auto fireman of Squad SO who becomes in effect the alter ego of the captain of Crash 80. So familiar is he with the operation that it is his duty to not only second-guess but to anticipate where the captain of Crash 80 will direct placement and operation of rescue men.
  6. In addition to the full-time crash and rescue apparatus and men assigned to the airport, well-skilled and equipped fire brigades of both North American Aviation and Douglas Aircraft companies are responding to offer their assistance when emergency conditions warrant. Both North American and Douglas also have ambulances.

By now the three rescue men riding the tailboard of Crash 80 have peeled off to the right and to the left. They are joined by a fourth, the rescue man from Tank 80 who has made the “quick connect” to the rear of Crash 80.

The four men—advancing two on either side of Crash 80—swing out the port and starboard reels containing 150 feet of 1-inch rubber-jacketed hose line. They then feed the “redline” through the fair leads mounted on the top right and left side of Crash 80’s bumper (note illustration). This enables Crash 80 to remain mobile if necessary. Should the rig be moved, its wheels will not foul the hose lines. Protected from heat by their turnouts and hoods, and crossing in front of Crash 80 so the ground sweeps can wet them down, the hand line men move in to attack fire under the wings or fuselage inaccessible to the turrets.

The hand line men advance along either side of the fuselage until they are at opposite ends of the plane. Their task then becomes one of maintaining the fire line and protecting the evacuation of passengers and crew. At this time the two rescue crews split; the nozzleman remaining with the hose, and the backup man joining rescue men from Engine and Squad 80 and Truck and Engine 95.

It may be assumed that the deluge of foam has by this time knocked down the main fire. The turrets and ground sweeps are shut down to conserve foam, although they can be quickly activated again if the fire flares up.

Evacuation of passengers and crew under most circumstances is through the foam fire line towards Crash 80 where the maximum protection remains constant.

The efficiency of the Los Angeles crash crews was demonstrated on Hallowe’en, 1957, when a United Air Lines DC-7 crew discovered a nonoperative right main gear preparatory to landing after a flight from New York. While the plane with its 11 passengers and crew of five circled the Los Angeles area to consume fuel and thus minimize fire danger during the belly landing, crash crews laid a foam blanket 1680 feet long and 70 to 80 feet wide along Runway 25L.

To add to the problem, another aircraft lost an engine on take-off and made an emergency setdown on Runway 25R, some 300 feet to the north while the foam was being laid. Thanks to the skill of the pilot, the ship touched down short because the pilot wanted to make certain he’d stop within the blanket. The huge ship skidded 1,610 feet, 530 of those feet in the foam. The blanket effectively smothered the fuel spillage and ground fire although considerable sparks and burst of flame developed from friction as the fuselage skidded along the runway. There were no injuries.

So closely do the officers and men of the crash wagons work and so familiar must they become with each other’s thinking, that it is estimated a minimum of six months is required before a newcomer to the crew is considered to be ready for full reliability.

Manpower assigned to the crash crews is generally made from Los Angeles Fire Department personnel with a thorough background in more conventional firefighting. Some of the officers and men have had previous air crash experience and some, like Captain Wes Furman of Crash 80, are pilots.

Training proceeds on a regular schedule and no shift ends without a sizable portion of the time given over to study of their specialized craft. Too, companies due to respond to the airport on second and third alarms are given detailed briefings on crash procedure.

Basic, of course, is a thorough familiarity with the apparatus and the many rescue and forcible entry tools. Mock drills are held regularly with blackboard “chalk talks” and detailed examination of aircraft schematic charts. Especial attention is paid to configurations, a significant factor having considerable bearing on thickness of fuselage skin, and determination of points where friction sparking is likely to occur in belly landings.

Attention also is given to the variety of fuels burned by today’s aircraft; passenger capacities; emergency means of ingress and egress; inflatable versus noninflatable escape chutes; landing and takeoff speeds.

Crash crews take every opportunity to study and field-inspect aircraft— especially new types as they land at the field. Too, the officers and men interview aircraft supervisors, maintenance men and manufacturers representatives, gleaning from each of them certain basic knowledge which one day might save vital seconds in rescue operations.

To familiarize crews with actual fire conditions and to build their confidence in the special protective clothing and hoods, pit fires are set in 25foot-diameter circles. Fire conditions are experienced both in dry protective clothing and after wetting down. As conditions permit, “hot” fire drills are practised. Old hulks—such as a B-45 —are set aflame and extinguished in full-scale rehearsals for the genuine incident.

Continuous reappraisal

Although the Los Angeles International Airport fire protection system is generally acknowledged to be excellent, plans are constantly being made to improve the operation. A revolutionary “Mobile Ramp” has been funded in the current Los Angeles Fire Department budget and is expected to be placed in service within a year. The apparatus will consist of a hydraulically operated and easily maneuverable ramp which will speed out on the field and draw up to disabled airliners to evacuate passengers and crew from doorways or other exists while crash operations are in progress.

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Also under consideration is a replacement squad and rescue rig for the apparatus presently in service. Too, there is a possibility that Squad 80 will be rebuilt and converted into a capability of carrying 1,000 pounds of dry chemical and more carbon dioxide. Also under discussion is a new 3 1/2-inch hose carrier. Future plans also envision a duplicate of Crash and Tank 80 to be housed at Fire Station No. 95 and provision for a third fire station to be located at the far west end of the field.

Although Fire Station No. 80 is one of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s busiest—it averages between 50 and 60 responses a month—the crash crews count themselves fortunate that the nation’s second busiest air terminus has never been the dateline for catastrophe as have all other major terminals in the country. Unlike more conventional fire stations, however, the crews have yet to log their first false alarm.

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