Air Show Emergency Response: Planning the Way Forward

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Nothing in recent memory has ignited a storm of controversy and a clarion call to action within the air show family like the death of Eddie Andreini at Travis Air Force Base in May of this year.  The controversy surrounds the length of time it took the Airfield Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) personnel to reach Eddie’s broken and burning Stearman.  The call to action is for every military and civilian air show to have emergency response protocols in place that recognize the unique nature of air show flying and air show aircraft, and the absolute necessity to respond to air show incidents and accidents in seconds, rather than minutes.

Andreini died when his Stearman biplane crashed on the Travis runway and caught fire while attempting an inverted ribbon cut.  While the details of his accident are still being investigated, Eddie’s death has brought new attention to the issue, not just at military shows, but at all air shows.

Military bases and many civilian airports have standard response protocols that are based on the types of aircraft that are typically found there. ARFF crews on military facilities and at Part 139 airports are expected to respond to an unannounced aircraft accident within three to four minutes.

George Cline was the air boss at the Travis show and expressed his concerns about their emergency response plan in a meeting with ARFF personnel prior to the show: “I always meet with emergency response officials ahead of time to discuss all aspects of the show, including placement of firefighting equipment,” he said.

Andreini’s accident made it clear that air shows at military bases are non-standard operations and require non-standard response plans.  “I’m much more insistent now about how and where equipment is staged at military bases,” Cline said. He has also started insisting that the fire chief or someone with similar authority sit next to him at his control point during the show. “We can’t have a fire truck waiting for clearance from the tower to cross a runway while an airplane is burning,” he said.

Cline believes that Andreini’s accident is helping to re-shape industry opinion on this critically important safety issue. “Procedures are changing because of Eddie’s accident, but we can’t be complacent and think the job is finished. We need to keep pushing these changes until they become standard.  Otherwise, we run the risk of going back to the old way of doing things.”

Air boss Ralph Royce, like Cline, has long advocated having a rapid response fire truck at show center.   Large airports and military bases are used to dealing with large airplanes like a 737 or C-17 which require completely different response capabilities compared to a 1,200 pound Extra 300 with ten gallons of fuel on board.  “The first vehicle doesn’t have to be a lumbering fire truck.  I want those behemoths rolling, but I want a fast attack truck with clear access to the flight line to be on the scene in less than a minute.  We don’t immediately need 4,000 gallons of foam; often, a fire bottle will keep flames away from the pilot until the big rigs arrive,” Royce said.

Unlike a 737 or C-17, the airframe of an Extra 300 is much more likely to catch fire immediately upon impact. “This is important for ARFF personnel to understand and we are trying to educate them about the need for a rapid intervention vehicle. Even a truck used for fighting brush fires is often a better first response option than a big rig, so long as it is staffed and ready to roll immediately.”

Like Cline and Royce, air boss Wayne Boggs meets ahead of time with ARFF personnel. “I brief them thoroughly on my concerns. We talk like brothers to discuss issues and concerns, and I ask to have one rapid response vehicle under my control, ready at a moment’s notice, that can control a fire until the big rigs can get there,” Boggs said. “It’s a bit of a slippery slope. I can’t tell them how to do their jobs, but — once I explain the concerns — they understand and the response has been very positive.”

Like other air bosses, Boggs lays out very clear expectations when talking with ARFF professionals. “I tell them I expect ARFF to be watching the show. I need them to move when I tell them to move, and take the most direct route possible without waiting for tower clearance or other protocols to kick in,” he said.

Boggs acknowledges the entire air show industry is on a learning curve right now when it comes to ARFF staging. “I will not let an unsafe condition continue and put pilots at risk. Shows can fire me or replace me, but I have an obligation to performers and, if I don’t get the response I need in discussions with ARFF leadership, then I will do what I can to stop the show.”

Because safety is paramount, there must be a high level of trust between performers and their air boss.  And while that trust level is often there, some performers are feeling they need to take their own measures as added insurance.

Performer Patty Wagstaff is proposing to add language to her contract requiring a four-wheel-drive rapid response vehicle be positioned at show center when she flies. The vehicle must be equipped with a fire extinguisher, an axe, gloves, and trained personnel.  The vehicle must be running at all times and the operators must be positioned and prepared to arrive at the scene of a crash within 60 seconds of an incident or accident. And she is urging her fellow performers to adopt similar language in their contracts.

Wagstaff believes that, initially, the most important equipment is the extinguisher, the axe and gloves. One person keeps the fire back while the others get the performer out of the wreckage. And she says pilots have to assume more responsibility for taking care of themselves. “First, we need to make sure we brief ARFF responders on our airplanes prior to the show so they can get us out quickly. My airplane has a halon system that goes off automatically if it senses heat. Cutoff switches should also be installed on oil systems, and pilots should wear Nomex flight suits,” she said.

Long time performer Steve Oliver shares many of Wagstaff’s concerns. “I’ve been pushing for rapid response vehicles at show center for a number of years. It doesn’t have to be a commercial fire rig; it can be a pickup truck with some basic equipment in the bed. I would think any new car dealer would love to have one of his rigs in front of the crowd if it is known they are helping to make the show safer,” said Oliver.

Like so many others, Oliver knows that large fire trucks sometimes can’t get on scene fast enough. “ARFF personnel have to realize that a Stearman, upside down, draining av-gas, is a lot different than a 737 accident. And the response time has to be a lot faster,” he said.

Like Wagstaff, Oliver has a halon gas system on his airplane. He installed it back in 1989. It has three discharge points around the engine and cockpit.  He urges other pilots to install a similar system.

Oliver also believes that the so-called “Amanda switch” should become a more common device installed into all air show aircraft. Designed to shut off the smoke oil pump in the event of a crash or pilot incapacitation, the “Amanda switch” is named in memory of Amanda Franklin, who died in 2011 from burns suffered in an accident in which the smoke oil pump continued to operate following  an aircraft accident.  (ICAS has also advocated for installation of “Amanda switches” for all performing aircraft. For additional details, contact ICAS Director of Operations Dan Hollowell at ICAS headquarters.)

When an aircraft engine is running, smoke oil flashes to smoke rather than flame because there is no oxygen coming out of the exhaust stack. When the engine quits and the oil continues to flow, oxygen enters the exhaust stack, allowing the oil to ignite.

Oliver notes that there are three different ways to activate an “Amanda switch.” The first is with a G-switch. The second would be an oil pressure switch. His favorite is a thermocouple in the exhaust that detects when the engine has quit producing heat.

In the event of an in-flight emergency, Oliver urges air bosses to remind pilots to shut off their smoke systems before landing.  Most would think of it anyway, but he says a calm voice reminding them to shut the system off would help every performer.

Another issue that Oliver and others have raised over time is that the ARFF crews who are briefed on pilot extraction on Friday aren’t always the same people who support the show on Saturday or Sunday; often, the information shared by the performer with the ARFF crew on Friday is not passed on to the crew members working on Saturday and Sunday.  “We need to realize this and insist that all new ARFF personnel are briefed prior to that day’s show,” he said.

In most safety briefings prior to the start of a show, the air boss will admonish performers to stay where they are in the event of an accident involving another performer.  Neither Oliver nor Wagstaff agrees.

“We have to think about our own personal safety, and — in many cases — performers can assist crash victims as well or better than ARFF people can,” Oliver said.  Whenever Oliver performs, he says his ferry pilot is sitting in the rental car with an extinguisher, an axe and a pair of gloves. The car is running and his eyes are constantly on Oliver until Oliver returns to the pit.

Wagstaff says her crew knows her concerns, and keeps the basic equipment in their rental car, as well…ready to roll if she has a problem. “My crew knows my airplane better than anyone and I want them there. We are conditioned to let professional firefighters handle accidents, but sometimes the pilot’s crew members are the best first responders,” she said.

Jim Clifford, ICAS member and former fire chief at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, however, does not agree with the notion of airplane crews rolling on a fire. Part of his objection to aircraft crews responding to a crash is that, even if there is a fast attack vehicle on scene, the larger rigs rumble in, usually from the smoky side of the crash and may not be able to see everyone out there.  He recalls what happened when an airliner crashed in San Francisco last year and a surviving passenger was covered in foam and died when she was run over by a responding truck.

Clifford also says another part of the problem is that the military doesn’t always send the right people to the ICAS Convention where they can hear concerns of pilots and air bosses.  ARFF personnel are usually not well represented. Further, most ARFF personnel at military bases aren’t even trained in responding to an accident involving something like an Extra 300 or a Stearman, which puts them at a disadvantage during air shows.

Clifford also believes air bosses should be given the authority to stop a show or prevent it from getting started if he or she is not comfortable with Crash Fire & Rescue (CFR) placement.  “The air boss should never be made to feel like he or she is stepping out of bounds when raising safety issues,” Clifford said.

Another change Clifford would like to see is for military base leadership to attend the pilot briefings.  “Usually they come in, deliver a welcome, and turn the briefing over to the air boss and leave.  I think base leadership should hear the discussions and the concerns that come up during briefings.”

Doug Rozendaal, Chairman of the ICAS Safety and Operations Committee, says CFR equipment placement and response times have been hot button items with him and with the committee for the past several years. “This should be an easy decision for just about every show. It’s the ‘low hanging fruit’ in our ongoing effort to improve safety. We can make a decision to make a small change that potentially has a big impact,” he said.

Rozendaal believes the industry is making progress, noting it’s a lot easier to get it done in small towns that rely on volunteer fire departments because most of those departments already have fast-attack vehicles for fighting brush fires. Rozendaal notes that the U.S. Air Force is just finishing a program to have at least one fast-response vehicle (the Air Force calls them P-34 Rapid Intervention Vehicles) at every U.S. Air Force base in the world.

Rozendaal says that, the larger the base or airport, the greater the problem. “This has been a weakness in the industry for a long time. It’s simply a fact of life: large fields have different response requirements than small fields and their standards often do not reflect the needs of air shows.  We need to work with military leadership and with the FAA to develop standards that will allow shows to go forward with increased confidence when it comes to ARFF response.”

More and more, the air show industry has been turning to NASCAR to learn its lessons on everything from marketing to ticket sales. But Rozendaal says we can learn some basic firefighting strategies from NASCAR, as well.  “NASCAR has firefighters in every corner wearing protective suits and carrying extinguishers to knock down fires and keep them away from drivers until the response vehicles arrive.  We need to look to NASCAR and other motor sports for examples of how their knowledge can help us do better,” he said.

Dennis Dunbar is chairman of the ICAS event organizer safety subcommittee and has been a proponent of the importance of proper positioning of fire trucks and rapid response vehicles. In the case of a small aerobatic plane, speed is more important than the size of the vehicle. “There is no single magic access route, but a rapid attack vehicle at show center is the logical location. Each field is different, so placement of such equipment may vary, but proper placement of ARFF equipment will go a long way toward restoring trust with performers that was lost after Eddie’s accident,” Dunbar said.

When it comes to ARFF, Dunbar believes that the waiver can also be another weakness.  Air show waiver provisions say what can and can’t happen in the airspace, but they do not include ARFF responses.  So, when an air boss sits with a fire chief to discuss how things should be done, there are no requirements for either of them to use. “This means we are governed by best practices, so long as air shows are willing to use them.  I’m not a fan of more regulations, but I do think we need some specific language about how and where ARFF equipment should be placed and how quickly it should be required to be on scene. This would make life a lot easier for the air boss,” said Dunbar.

Another of his concerns is the lack of rehearsals for ARFF personnel. “We rehearse the whole air show ahead of time, but we don’t rehearse our emergency response.  We can learn a lot from a well-developed exercise,” he said.  Dunbar notes some organizers are often reluctant to rehearse with the media present. But, if everyone had solid talking points to explain to the media the need for and benefit of such a rehearsal, that fear should go away.

The Oregon International Air Show (OIAS) in Hillsboro has completely revamped its ARFF procedures, but not as a result of Eddie’s crash. Rather, it was the result of the crash at the Reno Air Races in 2011.  Mark Prince, Deputy Chief of the Hillsboro Fire and Rescue Department, says they asked themselves what would happen if their air show suffered a similar disaster. “We realized we had to address this issue to make sure we were prepared,” Prince said.

The OIAS team brought people from Reno to Hillsboro to pick their brains and learn from them. The results were significant. “We now have as many [ARFF] people supporting the air show as we have for the entire city of 90,000 people. We changed our staffing plan, added extra fire trucks, obtained two pickups for rapid response, and we bring in a heavy squad from the Port of Portland which owns the Portland International Airport and has experience in dealing with large airplane accidents.  If a plane goes down on the runway, we can respond with the right equipment within seconds.”

Prince’s organization understands it has a two-fold mission…responsibility for the performers and responsibility for the crowd. “The equipment on the field stays on the field. Our assets are responsible solely for what happens within the confines of the airport. Any off-site calls are handled by the community’s 9-1-1 resources,” he said.

Prince says they now have not one, but two fast-attack vehicles ready to roll at a moment’s notice.  They are equipped with foam and each has two 125-pound extinguishers.  “We looked at the dynamics of the various aircraft that fly in our show, have consulted with other shows, and have adopted the philosophy of NASCAR.  If there is a crash, a pickup truck with suppression and extraction equipment is the first to roll.” Prince said.  Both of Prince’s fast-attack trucks are staffed and running throughout the duration of the show. One is near show center and the other is at the north end of the runway. He says their focus is to protect the pilot and control the fire until the heavy assets arrive.

Prince feels it isn’t necessary for performers and their crews to respond to accidents. “I believe that, in Hillsboro, performers can leave the accident response to us.  I have a 1,000-gallon pumper at the hot pit, plus a 200-gallon brush rig with foam right below the air boss and announcer at show center.” In addition, he says, there is another pickup near their chalet area, and another 1,000-gallon pumper truck at the other end of the field, plus a 3,000-gallon water tender and a large crash truck on other side of the runway.  “We don’t respond from a single point.  We respond from multiple locations in a very short amount of time.”

Prior to the show, Prince asks for aircraft schematics from every performer that include extraction details, canopy release information, fuel shutoff, master switch location, and aircraft lift points that can be included in a pre-planning book. “My troops are instructed to know where all switches and levers are for every aircraft we fly.  Getting extraction cards from performers has been difficult at times, and having a one-stop shop to get this information would be great. We hope pilots have a better understanding of just how important it is to provide this information,” Prince said.

Leading the effort to develop that single database of emergency extraction information for all air show aircraft is Dan Hollowell, ICAS Director of Operations.  “In cooperation with our database and website contractors, we have developed a user-friendly interface for performers to upload extraction documents that can then be downloaded by air show organizers for distribution to on-site ARFF personnel,” says Hollowell.

“Our goal is for every show to have a binder with a one-sheet summary of each aircraft flying in that show.  We have templates that ask performers for information that first responders want to have, such as where to grab, where to lift, where to shut things off.  This will give ARFF crews greater confidence in their ability to assist performers and give performers a greater sense of security if something happens. But the system necessarily requires each performer to log on to the ICAS website and upload the information. There’s no other way for us to get that information into the database,” he said.

Hollowell supports the deployment of rapid response units, but says that’s not the entire answer. He believes performers ought to accept some of the responsibility for establishing a relationship with ARFF personnel.  “Extraction documents go hand in hand with looking at the airplanes. A good extraction document helps connect what ARFF personnel see when visiting a performer’s airplane in the pits and what they see if it is upside down on the runway.  They reinforce each other,” he said.

Air boss Jim Gibson sees the issue as an opportunity to make a significant contribution when it comes to rapid response vehicles.  “I’m equipping a full size, four-wheel-drive pickup that will be available for hire from one show to another. It will be outfitted with a compressed-air foam system, fire extinguishers, axes, specialized equipment to break open a canopy, and a large air bag that could be slid under a fuselage and rapidly inflated to help extract a pilot.” He said use of an air bag would be faster than bringing out a fork lift or an A-frame to lift the tail.  And he intends to unveil his rig at the 2014 ICAS Convention.

Gibson says he would be the driver, but he said it would be staffed with local firefighters who are experts in this area. “I have a lot of air show experience, but I’m not a trained firefighter. My goal is to support the fire department. I will be providing them with a means to rapidly get to the accident with the equipment they need to do the job,” he said.

In the wake of Eddie’s death, ICAS President John Cudahy has met with Air Force firefighting leadership and he reports that they made it clear they want to work closely with ICAS to introduce needed changes. ICAS is also reaching out to various organizations that are stakeholders in issues relating to ARFF at air shows.

“The intent is to develop a consensus industry standard that will permanently change the manner in which ARFF teams stage their personnel and their vehicles to respond to air show emergencies. Losing an industry icon like Eddie Andreini is a devastating tragedy, but his death has galvanized our industry in ways that otherwise may never have occurred.  For that we will forever be in his debt,” Cudahy said.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.