HILL AIR FORCE BASE — It was a mild 65 degrees the morning of June 12 at Hill Air Force Base — but then, seemingly out of nowhere, a burst of bright orange flame turned things up a few thousand degrees.
Base firefighters honed their skills during a large-scale training exercise that included extinguishing a massive fire in a full-size aircraft mockup. The firefighters used what is known as an Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Vehicle, something a typical city or county fire station doesn’t usually deal with.
Like their civilian counterparts, Air Force firefighters may respond to a number of emergencies — structure fires, search and rescue, medical, and hazmat — but they must also be prepared for aircraft mishaps and other emergencies related to the Air Force’s mission.
“We basically do everything a normal fire department would do, but then we’ve got these extra responsibilities as well,” said Hill Fire Capt. J.R. VanDyke. “The thing that sets us apart from other departments is what we have to be prepared for with aircraft and hazardous material.”
VanDyke described Hill as a “hazmat hot spot“ because of the nature of work that takes place on base every day. Fuels used in several different types of aircraft, stored munitions and other live weapons make the base’s fire prevention and safety mission unique.
A crew of about 20 worked on June 12 to extinguish a massive blaze that engulfed a hollow shell of metal, built to resemble a large frame aircraft like a C-130 or KC-135.
The mock air frame was set ablaze, and flames quickly soared more than 40 feet into the air. Heat from the inferno would be felt hundreds of yards from the plane. Fire crews blasted the flames from their vehicles, mimicking an emergency scenario that could theoretically occur on Hill’s flightline.
”You obviously hope it never happens, but you have to be prepared for it,“ VanDyke said of extinguishing a full-blown jet fire. ”We take our training pretty seriously — we’re pretty hard-core about it.
VanDyke said similar training is usually completed about once every month by Hill fire crews.
Anthony Bott, an engineer with the department, was among the firefighters who quenched the mock aircraft fire. Bott said the faux plane is an invaluable piece of equipment for training.
“It essentially allows us to do exactly what we would in a real emergency,” he said. “It’s probably as close as you can get without it being the real deal.”
The crew also practiced extracting an unconscious pilot from an A-10 cockpit. To get the pilot out, crews had to “secure” the aircraft by shutting down the engines, the weapons systems and chocking the aircraft to prevent it from moving.
Fireman Richard Partington was part of the crew that extracted the pilot. He said he’s dealt with aircraft emergencies before, but never had to remove a pilot from a plane in a real-world situation.
“Fortunately for me, every crash I’ve been on, the pilot has been able to eject safely,” he said.
“We just had to take care of the fireball.”