Aircraft fire exercises provide critical training
By Staff Sgt Sherree Grebenstein, 167th Airlift Wing
/ Published July 20, 2009
Martinsburg, WV -- Firefighters with the 167th Airlift Wing put their mission proficiency skills to the test recently and tackled a raging inferno that engulfed an aircraft at the end of the base taxiway not once or twice, but more than 30 times.
The Airmen weren't off their mark by having the flames resurface. It was designed that way.
With the flip of some switches.
As soon as the flames were snuffed out by applying gallons of water onto them, another two-man firefighting crew broached the inside of the aircraft mockup to test their mettle. Donning a 70-pound, silver reflective firefighting suit and a self-contained breathing apparatus, the Airmen faced temperatures exceeding 800-degrees Fahrenheit inside the simulated aircraft.
While performing search and rescue inside the aircraft, firefighters doused flames as they made their way to the cockpit where their mission was to shut down the aircraft. But before they could even enter the aircraft, they had to battle the back blast of an engine fire on its one side.
The three-day training at the air base in Martinsburg, W.Va. was done to allow military firefighters stationed there to become certified on Aircraft Firefighting or ARFF which is an annual requirement. More than 70 military and civilian firefighters were reportedly certified during the July 14-16 training.
The majority of those assigned to the 167th Airlift Wing's Fire Department also serve as volunteer firefighters in the quad-state area, said Maj. Paul A. Henry, commander of the civil engineer squadron on base, which includes the fire department.
"It's a win-win situation for the local community and the Air National Guard to have our members train and serve in two departments," Henry said, as he took the opportunity to don fire fighting gear and train alongside his firefighters.
Volunteer firefighters from around the area took advantage of the certification opportunity which was provided by the West Virginia University State Fire Academy.
Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey M. Gengler, the base's fire chief, said the aircraft mockup is controlled by propane and is environmentally friendly.
"It's a very realistic mockup," said the York, Pa., resident. "We have a bunch of dedicated troops."
The $1.5 million aircraft can simulate everything from a C-5 to a regional jet. On Tuesday, the aircraft represented a low-wing aircraft that had caught on fire.
Besides providing realistic training, safety is paramount during every aspect of the mission.
Although the temperature ranges between 800 to 1,000-degrees Fahrenheit inside the aircraft mockup, sensors will not allow the heat from the propane-fueled flames to rise above that level.
Firefighters also tested their skills in putting out a blaze which reached up to 70 feet in the air engulfing a 375-square foot propane-driven burn pit.
Joseph Bittinger, an instructor with the West Virginia State Fire Academy, said firefighters are critiqued on proper hose management, the ability to put out the fires in both the aircraft mockup and burn pit as a well as simulating shutting down the aircraft via series of switches and levers in the cockpit.
Master Sgt. Wayne Viands, deputy fire chief for the 167th Airlift Wing, said the fire training on the burn pit and aircraft are extremely realistic.
Viands said while a two-person firefighting crew makes entry into the aircraft another two-person crew stands by as backup. The object is to "get in and out" of the aircraft as quickly as possible while extinguishing the fire.
After putting out the aircraft's flames, Senior Airmen Jesse W. Ruppenthal and Steven T. Sowers Jr. stopped by a water cooler at the training site for something to quench their thirsts and replenish the liquids they lost while fighting the intense blaze.
"The more experience you get, the better off you are in a real emergency," said Ruppenthal of Martinsburg.
Sowers said the cramped quarters of the aircraft provided perfect training as to what firefighters might face if they were to respond to a real world emergency involving a C-130 or Sesna.
The Ranson resident said getting through the small door of the aircraft mockup with all of their firefighting gear on and battling the blaze was a realistic scenario.
Standing near the open unlit burn pit by the end of the taxiway, Senior Airman Pierce T. Franklin noted that having the ARFF training done at the base allows for a situation that could occur on the airfield.
Franklin said although it is a controlled event, "it's as real as it can be."
This is the third ARFF training that Franklin has received with the last held at the airport in Hagerstown.
"Safety is paramount," he said. "Not only for ourselves, but for our fellow firefighters."
Staff Sergeant Joe C. Heflin said the more a firefighter trains the better they are when faced with a real emergency.
"Training and safety go hand-in-hand," Heflin said, agreeing with Franklin's emphasis on the need to be safe while executing the training.
During the three-day training, firefighters performed "buddy checks" to ensure that they were holding up okay during the extreme temperatures.
The burn pit simulated a running fuel fire after the fuselage would rupture.
"The pit is no joke," Heflin said of the intense temperatures and flames designed to climb up to 70 feet in the air.
Lt. Col. Christian P. Cunningham, an intelligence officer with the 167th Airlift Wing, isn't a firefighter, but jumped at being able to participate in the training.
"I want to get an opportunity for what they (the firefighters) do and what they go through," Cunningham said.