Training The Airport Fire Department
BATTLING aviation gasoline fires is a specialty demanding the greatest speed and efficiency of which a fire-fighting organization is capable. And by using scientific methods to blend speed with flexibility, Chief Pat Kane has molded the Kirtland Field (New Mexico) Fire Dept, into an airport organization of top efficiency.
Speed. . . . That is the dominant guide in fighting the plane fire. An explosion is always threatening from the naming core of the black column of an airplane blaze; once that explosion erupts, the account of the fire carries the invariable and grim conclusion, “There were no survivors.”
Where the average municipal department may encounter fires they will be content to “control,” the airport organization is forced to quench the blaze with the greatest possible dispatch. They must keep in mind that people, often injured, are in the plane, and the forces of explosion arc forming within the deadly nucleus of the blaze.
Although the airport fire department has a considerable amount of specialized equipment, developed by and answering their equally specialized needs, it should go without saying that any equipment is no better than the men that use it.
As in any other enterprise, speed is not attained simply by wishing for it. It is not attained by reading up on a lot of technique and methods, nor by talking about it nor by commanding it. And that refinement of prompt, smoothly-functioning efficiency demanded by a plane fire even cannot be achieved by any amount of hit-or-miss practice.
The factor to be emphasized here is the technique employed at Kirtland Field to attain this speed and efficiency and to indicate its possible carryover into the broader field of professional fire-fighting.
In the first place, Kirtland Field plans its own fires.
As often as possible, and you will see how he bolsters “possibility,” Chief Kane conducts trial runs on a mock crash.
The field’s salvage yard has provided the department with an imposing pile of w reckage: scrapped plane parts which Willow Run in its heyday never could have assembled into a single flyable craft. There’s the nose section of an AT-6, part of a B-29 fuselage, a wrecked engine and prop from a C-45 and an unidentifiable mass of broken bits and “pieces of other aircraft.
Combustibles have been arranged for through the refueling unit. When that organization has to drain the 100-octane from storage tanks or the fuel cells of planes, the Fire Department gets it. Used engine oil also finds its way to the demonstration area. Although all this material is unfit for planes, when splashed over the wreckage and fired, it provides a perfect facsimile of the burning at the scene of an actual crash.
But the preparation is not complete. The essentials are readied, but they are such as would provide only the usual cut-and-dried practice run.
The most important factor is the photographer.
In order to get the greatest advantage out of each test, to allow the chief to carefully assess the strength and weakness of each man’s technique and to provide a definite basis for further instruction, the department has arranged to get as many action pictures as possible during the brief minutes of the test.
Later, when the uproar, the urgency and the fumes of the conflagration are not present to distract the men from a careful evaluation of the details of their actions, the entire department can sit down and coolly assess the motions of each individual.
Everyone is acquainted with the motion-picture technique common in football circles. In addition to the picturestudy of the opposing team, the coach frequently takes “training” movies of his own men in action. These coaches have found that the detailed information needed about each player’s technique and co-ordination is obtainable only through the repetition possible with a motion picture record.
No human eye could possibly catch nor retain the flurry of action touched off by football “signals;” no more could it see the thousand details of fire-fighters at a blaze. But the impassive eye of the camera can and does see everything. And—even more important—the camera retains what it has seen without the tricks of memory with which the human mind is fraught.
So it is at Kirtland Field. Step by step Chief Kane and his men review their gambits in quenching the mock crash. The novelty to each man of seeing himself as others see him, quickly gives place to a more important impression: the chance for an intelligent evaluation of previously unknown clumsiness, wasted effort, effective attacks … all the good and bad points of their conduct are laid before them by irrefutable evidence of that conduct.
Even without the helpful criticism of his mates, each man could soon analyze many of his own shortcomings through the picture record.
On the broader scale, the Chief has an example to guide him in the more scientific direction of the hattle. The example itself may he repeated on the screen as many times as necessary. It can be compared with the camera record of past fires and can be used as a reference when improved methods are brought into play on the next.
The complexity of the job of fighting plane fires perhaps can best be brought out by a brief review of the specialized apparatus used.
Kirtland Field has the following apparatus spotted strategically in relation to the landing strips:
- One “Class 150”* truck made by Cardox Corp. This carries 3 tons of carbon dioxide and 500 gallons of premixed foam. The load may be discharged from any of the seven outlets. There are two boom nozzles—front and top—with a flow rate of 2500# per minute. A ground sweep chokes flame with a 2100# per minute stream of CO2, and a pair of hand lines, designed to work the flanks of the fire, operate at 750# per min. In addition, there are two bayonet nozzles available: oversized hypodermic needles that can be punched right through the skin of the plane to douse any fire inside the fuselage.
- One “Class 155” Mack truck designed primarily for rescue work. Carrying 1,000 gallons of water, this is equipped with two high pressure turrets which are used for blasting a channel through the fire. They operate at 650# pressure and discharge up to 300 gallons per minute. Nozzles are adjustalile between straight stream and semi-fog. There are also two hand lines fitted with Hardy nozzles, which are adjustable between full-fog and straight-stream; these are brought into play to hold the “V” blown by the turrets and maintain clear passage for the rescue squads.
- One “Class 125” Mack truck. A Hardy piston pump develops 600 pounds pressure, taking supply from a 300-galIon tank. Three hand lines get theirs from this tank, firing full-fog or straight stream from Myers high pressure fog nozzles.
- There are two “Class 135” trucks which are the proverbial Jack-of-alltrades, one built on a Ford chassis and the other on a Chevrolet; their 4-wheel drives make them excellent for crashes which occur in the rocky, cactus-speckled desert away from the air field. The 135 has a 300-gallon capacity tank, and pump develops 300 pounds pressure on three lines fitted with Bean and Myers nozzles. Hip packs, carrying two gallons of foam, are standard equipment.
*U. S. Army designation.
Combine this highly specialized equipment of limited water-capacity with the extraordinary emphasis on speed and it becomes obvious why frequent practice is mandatory. The time for controlling a plane fire is figured in seconds, not in minutes, and the more practice that is available, the more the airmen who are apt to survive the next crack-up.
As much as possible, the conduct of trial-runs is co-ordinated with other activities taking place on the field.
It is axiomatic that a fire draws a crowd. While many departments have denounced this as an obstacle. Chief Kane has molded it into an instrument for increasing the amount of practice his department can accomplish.
An example was the recent “Army Day” celebration, April 6th. Headquarters wanted a crowd out for their open house that day and, as ever. Chief Kane was eager for practice. The logical conclusion, satisfying both requirements, was the arrangement of another mock crash.
Hundreds of people flocked out from nearby Albuquerque, and Kane not only had up-to-date information on the precision of his crew, but—more important still—had his pictures as well.
The still pictures accompanying the article were taken of the department in action that day.
Actually, two fires were touched off on Army Day. The first, a pit-blaze, showed one type of technique; the second was concocted of some 700 contaminated gallons of aviation gasoline and oil spilled over the well-baked wreckage. Just to make things showy, if difficult, the stage was ignited with a brace of white phosphorous hand grenades.
Only the barest minimum of equipmerit was used on this one and the added complication of spattering phosphorous produced a tenacious blaze that fasted some 30 seconds before full control was established.
On May 2nd, a representative of a state-wide businessmen’s organization asked permission for his group to visit the field. The public relations office contacted Chief Kane for another fire. Everything went off as scheduled: practice, pictures and publicity.
After all this description one may rightfully ask for more tangible proof of the effectiveness of the technique. Look at some of the Kirtland records:
- On June 13, 1945, a Superfortress, coming in for a landing, crumpled a wheel and ran amok. It sides wiped a B-17 and stormed over a C-64 and an AT-6 on the parking apron, exploding the two latter planes. Dragging both aircraft, the B-29 nosed into a hangar building, and itself broke into flame. The Kirtland Fire Dept, rolled up to the hangar and doused the whole conflagration . . . time: 45 seconds. Of the ten men in the ship, the two pilots were injured when the nose section crumpled, but the rest of the crew walked away with only minor cuts and bruises.
- After contacting the ground on a normal landing, a Lockheed transport ground-looped. The landing gear collapsed, rupturing the fuel tanks and the entire ship was suddenly blanketed in flame. The Kirtland apparatus was out and had quenched the fire before any of the 17 persons aboard were injured. In the absence of a definite time on this crash, the following will probably indicate the speed with which the blaze was extinguished: 19 sacks of air-mail letters were taken from the plane later and were not even scorched.
Practice and photos had paid off to the tune of twenty-seven human lives . . . ample reward to a conscientious department.