It’s been more than 18 years since KCI had a deadly jet crash. But the crash of a jet at SFO in San Fransisco, Calif. last month is still fresh in the minds of the KCI airport firefighting crew.
Right next to KCI on the former TWA overhaul base, there is a boneyard of old planes, parts of them on pavement. One is an engineless 727 jet and airport Fire Chief Matt Mauer has just had a special crash truck spray it down with fire suppressing foam.
“Some of these birds carry a lot of fuel. And when they land they break apart and then you also have to maintain that foam blanket. So sometimes we have to reapply foam to do that," says Mauer. "But the goal of all of it is to get all of the people out of the tube. Get people out of the aircraft.”
Every airport has a few differences in what they do to train and work their jobs says Mauer, but KCI, Chicago and Memphis firefighters get together once a year to swap notes and techniques. They all know that opening a crashed jet to save people takes skills that need repeated practice.
Mauer drives his Chief’s SUV to the spot where wings and fuselages are destined for the scrap heap. His firefighters learn how to cut and pry into these parts of planes so they can rescue people who might be trapped inside at the real thing.
“There's an aircraft recycler here. And you can hear him, he’s cutting up a Fokker F100,” says Mauer headed towards the sound.
These old planes are the ultimate hands-on training tool for rescuers to learn how to get inside a crumpled plane.
A crash truck approaches with an overhead boom sticking out with a hollow spike connected to water. With a ‘screech,' the spike pierces the metal side of the plane body, the pumps rev up and water showers the interior and bursts out the back where the tail would be on an intact airplane.
Mauer says the only way to train for this is to have a derelict plane fuselage to use for practice and his department is lucky to have them.
Every year, training is required by the Federal Aviation Administration. Some of it comes through an institute at the University of Missouri. Dave Hedrick specializes in giving the training with a live-fire simulator that travels from airport to airport in the central Midwest.
The simulator looks a lot like a plane body and has loads of gas jets inside and out.
“It does use that propane gas to simulate both a potential fuel spill that might have come out of an aircraft, also potential engine fires as well as a potential interior fire that might occur either within the cabin or the cockpit of the aircraft,” says Hedrick.
Back on the tarmac at KCI airport, Mauer tells how a real life airport alarm goes: someone in the control tower picks up the crash phone and rescue trucks move - “we’re going to conduct a search of the aircraft. We’re going to take care of all the life safety issues,” says Mauer.
Great care is taken not to run over any victims on the ground around a crash scene — which happened after the most recent crash at SFO. It’s part of a regular learning sequence Mauer and trainers run through.
“We put an aircraft out on the runway. We lay out a debris field full of aircraft parts, and sometimes the occasional mannequin, throw a bunch of luggage out on the runway like the aircraft had hit and broke up," he says. "One of the things the personnel have to do when they respond, they have to select a path that either takes them successfully through the debris field or around it.”
There’s one other consideration in airport rescue and firefighting that doesn’t get mentioned a lot; the airport is a business, and they lose money when runways are closed for any reason.
“We understand that the airport is a big economic engine and we want to be able to get it reopened,” says Mauer.
Air crashes always get the attention, but Mauer says his teams are more likely to be helping people who have medical emergencies on planes or at the airport. They train for that as well.