“Firepits”: How Air Force Fire Fighters Cut their Teeth

Image by USACE Europe District

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Most airfields and air force bases have an area known as the firepit, where unfortunate old aircraft are reincarnated as blazing infernos with the specific task of saving life and limb.  It is here where rookie and experienced fire fighters alike acquire the necessary skills to tackle aircraft blazes, saving passengers and crew in the process.

Image by USACE Europe District

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Fire fighters decide what sort of blaze they plan to simulate, and then use propane to get the aircraft burning accordingly.  Sometimes it will be a localised engine fire.  Other times the entire plane will be ablaze.  Dummies stand in for humans trapped inside the fuselage, and fire fighters, decked out in full heat resistant kit and (often) infrared goggles, approach the aircraft with the same caution and professionalism as if it were a real accident scene.

Image by The National Guard

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Rescuers work as a team to tackle the intense blaze while other emergency services are on hand to administer critical medical attention to would-be survivors.  Foam is used to douse the flames from the outside, cooling the fire and coating the fuel to prevent it coming into contact with oxygen and combusting.

Image by USACE Europe District

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Fire fighters then force their way into the cabin in search of survivors.  Once a fire has broken out, rescuers have around two minutes to save those onboard.  Students often fail the test if they haven’t extinguished the fire after two and a half minutes – a short amount of time that must seem agonisingly long anyone trapped inside the fueslage.

Image by USACE Europe District

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Once the drill is over, the battered aircraft is made safe until the next burn in its fiery future. The test rig above is actually a C-130 mock-up at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  Rigs like this tend to be safer and better for the environment, since they offer fire fighters more control over the flow of propane and effective allow the fire to be “switched off” in the event of an accident.  But in many cases this role is still fulfilled by retired aircraft, some of which can hang on for years before finally disintegrating into a pile of charred metal.

Images via U.S. Federal Government

(Images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in public domain)

Here’s how the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps does it!  Mobile training rigs stand in for real aircraft, while the use of well-controlled propane allows for numerous small fires or one big one.  The ability to control the flames and switch the fire off at any point means the rig is safe to use on aircraft carriers, enabling Naval fire fighters to prepare for demanding emergencies that arise at sea in all possible weather.

Image via U.S. Navy

(Image in public domain)

In the picture above, fire fighters use a mobile aircraft firefighting training device (MAFTD) aboard the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman.  It looks as though the carrier’s real aircraft have been moved below deck until the fire drill is over!

Images by Fergal Goodman

(Images top and bottom by Fergal Goodman, originally published on Airliners.net)

This unfortunate looking Vulcan B2 bomber had a long and distinguished career with the Royal Air Force before ending its days on the fire dump at RAF Valley in Wales.  The top picture (taken 1983), shows the Vulcan soon after its arrival, blown off its undercarriage but otherwise reasonably intact.  The second picture (1985) tells a different story, with the nose section almost completely melted and charred fuel barrels highlighting a less hi-tech way of starting a fire.  Retired Vulcans were popular fire fighting due to their size, which meant they could cling to life for years.

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