Wisconsin Aircraft Fire School
Apparently the Midwest’s only statewide training program of its kind, Wisconsin’s annual two-day Aircraft Fire Fighting Procedures School has for two years now been held in Madison for the benefit of all Badger State fire fighters.
This is not just another run-through on how to handle aircraft fires, despite the title.
As Fire Training Supervisor Gordon Christianson explained, “This isn’t for fire fighters alone. Our purpose is to get together the people who fly, the people who insure the planes, the manufacturers of aircraft and fire-rescue equipment—anybody in any way concerned with aircraft fire safety. We can all learn from each other.”
The school last May 14 and 15 was jointly sponsored by Wisconsin Fire Service Training, the Air National Guard, the Madison Fire Department (whose training center was used for classroom sessions), and the local Wisconsin Vocational, Technical, and Adult Education District. Nearly 80 men attended, representing 25 fire departments, trade associations, manufacturers and government agencies.
Speaking the first morning, Kennon C. Glaser, aviation specialist for the Insurance Company of North America, urged fire inspectors to give airport facilities more thorough coverage.
“You tend to give a conventional building, worth a hundred thousand or so, a careful going-over for all sorts of hazards,” he claimed, “yet the hangar with a million dollars worth of aircraft in it gets only a brief look.”
Use of ordinary tools
Highlight of the day was a detailed slide presentation on “Handling Incidents with Conventional Fire Equipment” by Major Philip Brown, assistant fire marshal, Canadian Air Force Headquarters, Ottawa. His emphasis was on “what you can do with what you’re stuck with,” for departments not equipped with the latest crash rescue gear. Brown demonstrated several simple tools for cutting seat belts or ejection seat tubing.
He also stressed pre-fire planning in the typical smaller city with a general aviation runway. It’s important, he stated, to know the vicinity hazards— what is on the airport outskirts—and how to get there from the airport.
In this regard, Christianson displayed large-scale, 4-foot-square, aerial photos of airports in the state available from the Aeronautics Division of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Contour line overlays can also be obtained to show natural obstacles such as gullies or streams. The aerial views also highlight hazards near approaches, such as schools, tank farms, etc.
Inspection of aircraft
During the afternoon, everyone was bussed to Madison’s Truax Field for tours of commercial and military aircraft, including the C-54, DC-9, Boeing 707 and 727, and Fairchild 227. The object was to familiarize the men with exits, escape hatches, fuel tanks, hydraulic systems, armament and electrical equipment.
That theme of “know your aircraft” was emphasized the following morning by Chief John Gorecki of the fire department at Mitchell Field (Milwaukee), Wisconsin’s largest airport. He cited the example of a relatively minor fuel spill fire, caused by a broken line, that turned into a heavy loss because an overzealous fire fighter got into the cockpit and disconnected the battery. This particular plane had electrically operated fuel shutoff switches, and without battery power they could not be used to stop the spill.
Gorecki also stressed “learn your field.” One of his methods on nights when the field is closed by fog is to take one of his drivers, blindfolded, out onto the runways, out of sight of the tower, remove the blindfold, and say, “Now take me back.”
—Madison Fire Department photos.
In reviewing the sometimes oddball nature of airport incidents—535 of them at Mitchell Field last year—Gorecki touched on such fire fighting problems as foam resupply and the importance of not using solid water streams on overheated wheel brakes. Sudden thermal stress can shatter hub castings with lethal force.
Aided by a tape-recorded report from the Milwaukee airport manager, Bob Michaels, Robert Skuldt of Truax Field had a warning for local airports and fire departments alike concerning more stringent fire-rescue capability required by the 1970 Aircraft and Airport Development Act. Every commercial aviation field will have to pass certain criteria to be certified for specific levels of operation.
Michaels explained that the Federal Aviation Administration has tentatively written the certification requirements, which link fire fighting vehicle capability to the size of the largest plane using the field and to the number of annual departures—over or under 1500.
“There are five ‘indexes’ or categories of vehicle capability,” Michaels explained. “If a required vehicle is out for repairs more than two weeks, your certification can get dropped down to the next lowest index.”
Skuldt explained that the requirement, potentially one of the toughest, is that the fire-rescue force must be able to reach any point on the field within 3 minutes.
“Some airports are going to need two or three fire stations, not just one,” he said. “A second station will be going in at Chicago’s O’Hare Field.”
A few bright spots in aircraft fire protection were brought out by another speaker, Herb Leppke, who was introduced as both captain and lieutenant—the former as a commercial pilot (27 years with United) and the latter as an officer in the LaGrange Park, Ill., Volunteer Fire Department. He represented the Air Line Pilots Association.
Leppke described new products being developed to reduce toxic gases and heat propagation in aircraft fires. One of these is DuPont Nomex. Another, developed by NASA, is fluorel paint, which is relatively economical, long-lasting, does not damage cloth, and will greatly enhance the protection afforded by conventional turnout clothing besides being useful in cabin interiors.
One problem in aircraft use of new materials is that they often behave differently in actual cabin fires than in lab tests. A promising solution to this may soon be available, Leppke said, because of the donation last year of a damaged 707 cabin section to NASA in Houston. Tests of interior fires and material behavior are now being planned by NASA in cooperation with the NFPA.
Next on the program was Sgt. William Skinner Jr., base fire chief of the Air Guard at Truax Field, with the Air Force film, “Aircraft Fire and Rescue Procedure.” He was followed by Jerald Mertens, general aviation specialist for the FAA at Milwaukee, who spoke on “Small Aircraft Incidents.”
Lack of fire protection
One of Mertens’ jobs is surveying conditions at the little airports having no commercial flights at all.
“I just got back from a tour of 27 airports in one corner of Wisconsin,” he said. “I didn’t see one ‘no smoking’ sign in any fueling area. There was almost no provision for grounding aircraft while refueling. There was only one fire extinguisher at all 27 fields, and it was kept locked up in a cabinet.
“We have no laws to change these things where there are no commercial flights. So go out to your private airport people, talk to them, and see if you can get them to do some of these things. It would help us tremendously.”
Small planes burn quickly
As for crash-caused fires, Mertens advised, “Though they seldom catch fire, the average small plane burns completely in 35 seconds or less, so you’ll never get there in time. Your job will be to remove the remains.”
In that connection, Gorecki commented that his men now carry body identification tags to mark just where in the wreckage each victim was found. This can be vital to lengthy investigations, sometimes as proof of who was actually the pilot.
The final afternoon session consisted of fire fighting demonstrations in a Truax Field drill area. Madison Fire Department Engine 8, Truck 8, an Air Guard Oil A and structural pumper, and several other units participated. A series of JP-4 fuel spill fires was controlled and extinguished with conventional fog, dry chemical and Light Water.
Featured in one demonstration was Madison’s small light rescue unit, a four-wheel-drive pickup carrying 450 pounds of dry chemical with 100 gallons of Light Water, applied through a dual nozzle by pressure from two nitrogen cylinders. This type of unit showed a fire-extinguishipg wallop far out of proportion to its small size, an important asset for the small fire department which, in view of impending federal regulations, is going to need all possible cost effectiveness for airport protection.