Say what you want about ARFF operations but for the majority of my career I have worked at some of the busiest and/or some of the most diverse airfields the military and Department of Defence (DoD) had to offer. Throughout my career I have been able to experience crashes, ground emergencies, and in-flight emergencies on some of the coolest military aircraft around to include F-22, F-35, F-117, B-2, and many more.
Many people think of ARFF response as a quickly arriving OSHKOSH T-3000 positioning at a large aircraft crash or 3-D pool fire, only to discharge its’ powerful 1,500 GPM roof turret and save the day. In reality, that’s not the case, at least on a consistent basis.
The reality is, the seemingly routine incidents are just as dangerous to firefighters and fire officers operating at airfields with fighter/attack and other military aircraft. In this case I’m talking about the hundreds of in-flight emergencies that range from hung ordinance or landing gear, engine fires and smoke in the cockpit, to strange incidents such as a bird strike that knocks a canopy off in flight. For the most part these aircraft land and when they do, many times they do are generally received by ARFF crews waiting at their predesignated airfield positions (touchdown, mid-field, rollout) to give chase down a runway or taxiway and position at the aricraft once it’s stopped to take various mitigation measures.
Imagine you are at an active airport with military aircraft. You are just toned out to an inflight emergency for an F-18 with hydraulic problems. The aircraft lands but uses a lot of its brakes to stop because of speed brake, aileron and flap issues from the hydraulics. This causes hot brakes, the first cooling stage would be to keep them moving down the taxiway, but they can’t because of unsafe gear. The aircraft comes to a stop and you’re first arriving. The Captain jumps out and takes point as the primary POC (point of contact) for the pilot to take instructions. You and another firefighter are assigned to go safe the chaff/flare and gun (if needed), check the brake temp, and pin the landing gear before the pilot can egress and the aircraft can be handed off to the ground crew. Even at idle going under these aircraft can be nerve racking. So many seemingly little things can happen from moving flaps, to APU/EPU starts, fire, the LOUD and intimidating chaff boxes, engine exhaust, tail hook etc., just being under the aircraft in general while running makes the adrenaline pump.
When I was part of that team I was thinking two things; does my point man have control of the aircraft and how do I communicate with them as we complete our assessment or tasks. Depending on your airport/department you may wait for the ground crew and only engage if you need those big turrets. In my experience this was a fire incident until safe and could be handed over to the ground crew.
The point man is critical to the safety of the crew underneath the aircraft and success and completion of any mitigation measure such as safe/pinning landing gear, taking brake temp, etc. For the point man it is critical that they immediately get the attention of the pilot. This can be done by hand and arm signals which I will reference further down. Once the pilot recognizes the point man as the IC/or in control they must ensure the aircraft is at idle, brakes applied, and get the pilot’s hands up on the cockpit dash. This one thing alone is critical. This ensures the pilot is not touching anything or accidentally hit anything that could put the safety of the crew in jeopardy.
One incident while working at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, AZ both a NAVAIR Category IV airfield and serving Yuma International airport put this front and center. While operating on an AV-8B Harrier that had hot brakes the team underneath the aircraft checked the brake temperature and attempted to make safe the main landing gear which sits directly underneath the aircraft center in between the wings. Harriers have two nozzles on each side of the aircraft versus jet engines in the rear. This makes operating underneath them even more tricky as the point man must do two things before the crew makes entry to the aircraft; ensure the pilot has the nozzles up/back and always ensures the pilots hands never go out of sight as to accidentally hit anything. In this case that happened, while the crew was attempting to pin the landing gear the nozzles drifted down. The Harrier has a cold and hot nozzle on each side (cold in front/hot in back), in all actuality they are both hot! As the nozzles drifted down the asphalt started softening from the heat and the crew had to evacuate immediately. In this case there were only minor burns sustained but it was a close call.
If you are ever the point man these actions will help ensure your personnel and operations are as safe as possible;
1) Understand the nature of emergency
2) Know the pilot’s intentions before arrival
3) On arrival take point/assume IC with the pilot. Primarily with the appropriate hand signal- one hand up and one hand on head.
4) Have the pilot put hands on dash/in sight- tap both hands-on head.
5) Communicate the plan with your rescue team- check brake temp, pin gear, tail hook, etc.
6) Have an emergency evacuation notification in place (3 horn blasts, etc.) to tell the crew under the aircraft something is wrong.
a) In one instance where we had team members under the aircraft and as typical they were to check the problem and safe of the landing gear so the pilot could shut down and egress. While the team was under the aircraft the point man noticed that the nose landing gear was not fully extended. This was missed initially because the call was hydraulic in nature and had no indication of hung gear not fully extended. In this case the point man signaled to the ARFF driver to sound the horn and the team backed out and kept the aircraft running until the ground crew arrived. In this case the point man recognized the hazard and pulled the crew out. Had someone not checked the nose gear and the pilot shut down it could have been bad.
7) Indicate that your team will be making entry under the aircraft and what they will be doing.
8) As the team is under the aircraft your hand will be up indicating the number of people under the bird and the other hand following their locations.
9) As the team under the aircraft completes tasks and relays those completions to the point man, the point man should relay that to the pilot so progress is known.
10) Once tasks are completed ensure members are out from under the aircraft for the pilot to shut down. Never shut down the aircraft while team members are under the aircraft unless the landing gear is pinned/safe.
Above are some common hand and arm signals the point man will use. These are typically the same as the ground crew and will be familiar with the pilot. While serving in the United States Marine Corps deployed to Iraq we worked around AH-1 attack helicopters frequently. In this case my personnel worked around these aircraft during extremely hazardous times during hot refuel, hot arming, and multiple ground emergencies with live rounds and ordinance. In the case of the AH-1 my team established our own hand and arms signals for the gunner to disconnect their helmet form the 20 mm cannon and for our members to safety the gun and chaff/flare pods. In this case there were no hand and arm signals to indicate when these were safe and we implemented these to increase communication and safety during emergencies. The hand and arm signal for the gun being safe was like a cowboy holstering their pistol, their chaff/flare safe signal was using both hands to simulate small bursts, and the helmet gun disconnect was a motion to unplug from the helmet.
In one instance while deployed overseas we had responded to an AH-1 with smoke in the cockpit. As we arrived the helicopter was just landing. Just as they landed and we arrived the cannon moved in our direction, luckily, we were spotted to the side of the aircraft at a 90 understanding of the hazard presented by the cannons 180-degree scrub area. This incident still served as a small reminder of the hazard and the need to ensure at all times that it is not hooked up to the gunner while operating around it as a best practice.
Don’t let the basics escape you and commit to refreshing on the foundations as you continue to grow throughout your career.
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