Fire!

Who you gonna call?

February 1, 2003

It has been a beautiful evening, the sky has been calm, and the dinner was great. Everything has been perfect. You and your spouse (or main squeeze) invited your best friends for a flight to another city for dinner. They have made the evening fun. You know why they are your best friends.

The flight home was like riding on glass, the kind of voyage that makes you look like you have been a pilot all of your life. Now it's time for the approach to your final destination. Contact the unicom frequency, announce your intentions, slow the aircraft down. The gas tanks are on the mains, the undercarriage is down. There are three green. No — there are only two green lights. Your heart stops ....

OK, you've practiced this many times before. Let your training take over. Cycle the gear. Still only two green. Replace the light bulb with one of the other greens that are lit — still dark. At this point in time millions of questions hit your brain simultaneously. What are the emergency procedures? What should I do next? Who should I contact? How will I ever get these people safely on the ground? Should I declare an emergency? If I do, who will be on the ground to help me? Should I go to a larger airport? How much fuel do I have on board? When was this club plane last serviced? The questions go on and on and on.

First of all, you remember your flight instructor's words of wisdom. Fly the airplane — someone needs to fly regardless of the emergency. Remain calm — how you present your situation to your passengers determines how they will react. Follow the emergency procedures in the flight manual — do it by the book.

You take a deep breath. That's better.

You know you should have at least another 30 minutes of fuel on board. Yes, you did a good preflight and you've had no perceptible winds on the flight home. Going to a larger airport is probably out of the question because it will take about 30 minutes to get there. Too close a call for the remaining fuel.

Your home airport is nontowered, with only a few people hanging around after six o'clock. You try to raise someone on the unicom frequency. Someone at the FBO answers you — all right! You tell him your dilemma, and ask him to check to see if he can verify that all three gear are down when you do a low pass over the runway. His answer is not what you want to hear. "Your right main is not down."

Wishing he had said that everything looked OK, you thank him and tell him you will be back with him in a couple of minutes. What next? Fly out of the pattern, trying to sort things out. Now the flood of questions comes back to you.

One question keeps returning to your overworked brain. Who will respond if I land gear up? Who will be there if we catch fire?

The question is a valid one. Airports are designated by the FAA under FAR Part 139 into classes, or indexes. The airport index affects such things as security measures, federal funding, and how much aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) personnel and equipment are required on field and when. The index of an airport is based on the length of commercial carrier aircraft landing on a scheduled basis. There are about 19,000 airports in the United States and about 650 of them are certificated or indexed. Index A is for aircraft less than 90 feet in length. Index B is for aircraft at least 90 but less than 126 feet in length, and so forth. By the FAA rules, general aviation airports are nonindexed.

The FAA mandates that all indexed airports have ARFF equipment and manpower on the field. The amount of equipment and manpower depends on the index rating and the departure and arrival times of the scheduled carriers.

Who responds to nonindexed airports? Good question, because there is no FAA requirement. If your airport is in a metropolitan area, usually the local fire department responds. If your airport is rural, then the task is up to the airport maintenance and security crews and local volunteer fire departments.

How long does it take for the responders to get ready for your arrival? At indexed airports, ARFF crews and equipment must be able to get to a location at the farthest runway within three minutes. Local full-time fire departments based off the field usually can respond within 15 to 20 minutes. Volunteer departments usually take longer to respond.

That should answer one of your questions. When do I declare an emergency? For this decision you need to allow time for responders to arrive at the airport. If you don't know how long it will take, declare an emergency as soon as possible to allow for the response time. Most firefighters would love to have the opportunity to sit down with a cup of coffee and decide on a plan for an emergency. Many pilots will wait to declare an emergency until they are on final approach, not allowing rescue personnel time to get ready.

What training do the airport responders have? Well, the FAA requires indexed airports to have crews trained in aircraft rescue and firefighting with initial certification and yearly recurrent training. Although this training is required, there is no specific training requirement for general aviation aircraft. Nonindexed airports do not have any requirements for training. The FAA grants monies at indexed airports for equipment and training of ARFF personnel, but nonindexed airports are not as lucky. If your airplane catches on fire, how long do you have before the flames burn through the aircraft skin? These are scary figures, so if you are weak at heart, skip this paragraph. Testing by the FAA research center has demonstrated that on a commercial aircraft with a skin thickness of 0.080 inches with direct contact between flames and the aircraft skin, the skin will keep the fire out of the cabin for about 90 seconds. With general aviation aircraft having a skin thickness of 0.020 to 0.024 inches, the time drops to 20 to 30 seconds. Unfortunately, all bets are off for fabric-covered aircraft. Think back to your emergency procedures. Remember the part about opening a door prior to touchdown so you can make a fast egress? Now you know part of the reason.

How flammable is the fuel on board? Avgas is rated as "flammable" by the National Fire Protection Association. This flammability tells everyone involved that if the fuel comes in contact with a spark or flame when the temperature is less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it will burn freely. Just a side note: For "combustible fuels" the temperature is more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Avgas has a flame spread of about 12 and a half feet per second. Jet-A fuel has a flame spread of about one and one-half feet per second.

Most local fire department training focuses on structural and automotive fire and rescue. Structural is the term for buildings, both houses and commercial structures. A lot of firefighters consider an automotive-type rescue to be the same as aircraft rescue. Nothing can be further from the truth. Automobiles are designed for two-dimensional movement.

Aircraft on the other hand are designed for three-dimensional forces and movement. In automobile rescue, if the doors are jammed and you need to extricate a person, you just cut the doorposts and peel the roof back. What would happen if you tried that in a high-wing aircraft? First of all, you would have cut a fuel line located in one of the doorposts, dumping all the contents of the fuel tank onto the rescue personnel and passengers. There is no shutoff between the fuel tanks and fuel selector valve in the cockpit.

Talk with the firefighters on your field, or with those who respond to your airfield. Ask them what formal training they have had specific to aircraft rescue and firefighting. We are all a part of the team to make flying safe. It takes a concerted effort with everyone involved to communicate how everything will transpire if something goes wrong. Planning and training are needed to keep an emergency from becoming a disaster.

Your decisions are made. You decide to declare an emergency and set down at your local airport. You contact the FBO again, and advise the person who responds to the unicom of your intentions. He advises you that he has contacted the local fire department and they are arriving now. You dial up the emergency frequency to declare the emergency. You make a couple of practice approaches over the runway, just to make sure you have remembered everything.

On your final approach, you see the comforting lights of the emergency vehicles. You are ready, and they are too. You cut off all electrical power, shut down the engine, and dead-stick it in. Across the numbers — your palms are really sweating now — you start your flare, holding the right wing just a little higher. Your left main touches, more left aileron to keep the wing up. You have opened the doors an inch or two. As your speed tapers off you use more aileron to keep the wing off the ground. Everything is in slow motion and as it seems like you are almost stopped, the speed cannot hold up the right wing anymore. It drops with a deafening sound. As the right wing tip touches the ground, the plane veers hard to the right, coming to stop at the edge of the runway.

You check with everyone on board; they're OK. You exit the plane to meet the rescue crews standing a few feet away with hose lines charged and ready for action. There have been no sparks, no fuel leaks, and luckily, no fire.

The questions that have been going through your head come back to you. You talk with the fire chief of the responding local fire department. He tells you that unlike most local departments responding to airports, his department just finished a course in aircraft rescue and firefighting, paid for out of the fire department's meager budget. You thank them and wait at the local FBO for the FAA to arrive, relieved that your fire department has seen the need for training and has done something about it.


Dan Parker, AOPA 934548, of Elizabeth, Colorado, is a retired firefighter. He has been a private pilot for more than 27 years.