Approximately half of all aircraft accidents take place when the pilot is bringing the plane to an initial approach, a final approach, and the phases of landing at an airport (Richardson, 2003). Fewer than 31% of airport accidents occur within "200 meters of the centre line of the active runway," Richardson reports, and within "1,500 meters of the runway threshold," which is the Critical Rescue and Fire Fighting Response Area. during the "final climb or initial descent phases." The airport accident that seems to be the most common is a failed take-off, which results from a tire blown out, or a mechanical failure or human error, Richardson explains. Nearly 10% of fatalities are reported to have been caused by a "post-crash fire" or a design error.
On the subject of fatalities caused by a post crash fire, this paper delves into the equipment that is used by firefighters when rushing to an aircraft fire, and the development of that safety equipment through the years.
The Federal Law that Apply to Airport Rescue and Firefighting
In 2009 the U.S. Congress set the standards for the kinds of safety equipment that an airport needs in order to obtain an operating certificate. This Code applies to airports that have aircraft capable of carrying at least 31 passengers.
In the United States Code -- Title 49 Transportation, section 44706, an airport operating certificate shall be authorized if the airport follows the procedures for safety. The airport must maintain "…adequate safety equipment, including firefighting and rescue equipment capable of rapid access to any part of the airport used for landing, takeoff, or surface maneuvering of an aircraft" (Government Printing Office). Also, the airport must have applied a "friction treatment for primary and secondary runways" that the Secretary of Transportation deems is needed (Government Printing Office).
That having been said, if an airport serving aircraft capable of carrying 31 passengers can show that there will be a negative "economic impact" by adhering to the Title 49 safety standards, that airport has 120 days to submit a report detailing how the rule will be difficult to put into effect due to the cost of the upgrades (Government Printing Office).
How Airport Rescue Efforts Can Go Wrong
In July 2013 Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed at the San Francisco International Airport, and although only 3 people were killed, one of the deaths apparently could have been avoided, according to an article in CNN (Griffin, et al., 2014). The pilot brought the jetliner down "faster than it should have" been brought down, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). On top of that, the plane was flying at a slower speed than it needed to while coming into to the runway for a landing -- hence the crash and burn episode.
A sixteen-year-old girl from China had been thrown from the plane and her injured body was lying in the grass near the damaged plane when an emergency firefighting vehicle nearly ran over her. Video played on CNN shows a firefighter on the ground telling the driver of the huge rescue vehicle, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop, stop, stop! There's a body…right in front of you" (Griffin). That vehicle did go around the body but no emergency responders moved her body or marked her body on that spot, hence, another rescue vehicle did not see her and crushed her head, according to CNN (Griffin). A lawsuit has been filed by the girl's parents, alleging that first responders "…failed to move her to a safe location, failed to mark her location, failed to protect her from moving vehicles in the vicinity of the aircraft where it was known that vehicles would be traveling…" (Griffin).
The sad part of that story is that Ye Meng Yuan was the only child and was a "star student"; the San Francisco Fire Department said it was "heartbroken" over the incident. This incident points up the many dangers that are part of rescue and firefighting procedures at airports.
New York Times Historical Articles on Airport Firefighting Incidents
The history of aviation goes back to 1903, but it wasn't until many years later that airports began to be built and commercial air travel was launched. Following that development, of course firefighting equipment had to be part of every airport's standard operating procedures. Quickly pouring foam on a burning aircraft is vitally important, as was apparent in 1976 at the Philadelphia International Airport.
According to a UPI story in The New York Times, a "major disaster" was averted thanks to firefighters who "…poured foam on the plane's engines, which had not exploded, while rescuers entered the craft to assist passengers." No doubt it was not as sophisticated as today's procedures for a crash at an airport, but of the 103 passengers aboard the Allegheny Airlines DC-9, only 27 remained in the hospital a few days following the accident.
In 1954 a new firefighting device was patented to help put out fires on aircraft carriers. The patent was achieved by Richard L. Tuve of the Naval Research Laboratory. The Navy had asked for equipment that would put out big and small fires related to aircraft. Tuve's technology (which by now has been transitioned by newer, more effective foam devices) mixes water "with a foam-forming liquid concentrate made of vegetable or animal protein" (New York Times).
The mixture, once ready, is carried to parts of the ship -- in this case, the U.S.S. Forrestal -- and the "actual foam" is created when the liquid comes into contact with the air at the point of the nozzle. The patent (2,696,266) was given by Tuve to the U.S. Government for "free use" (New York Times).
Another development that predates the modern airport safety measures was created in 1967 in Vancouver, Canada. It was called the "bogmobile" and at the time it was launched it was "expected to save lives" (Canadian Press). It was called "Crash Rescue Vehicle No. 8" and it cost $13,000; it was a "rubber-tracked craft that will scramble over solid ground at more than 25 m.p.h., climb over logs and chew its way through thick mud, and, if necessary, swim" (Canadian Press, 1967).
The craft was designed to be able to operate in the swampland around the Vancouver Airport; in fact a small plane had crashed about 100 yards outside the airport perimeter and the Canadian Mounted Police had a tough time negotiating through the bog and swamp to get to the small plane. Three persons died in that crash. It was originally designed for the swamps and tidal waters around the Vancouver Airport, but it was also intended for other airport crash scenes where the surrounding terrain might be challenging (Canadian Press). It was flat and was 16 x 11 feet and could carry twenty-five people.
Firefighting Equipment at Airports -- A History
In the early days of firefighting at airports -- and still today -- firefighting vehicles specializing in airport crashes are called "tenders." They are also known as "airport fire appliance" vehicles. They are large and sturdy, and generally provide good acceleration because they must arrive at the scene of an aircraft accident quickly. The first fire engine -- such as it was -- was built in roughly the "middle of the sixteenth century," according to the Seagrave Catalogue No. 5 (1926). The apparatus consisted of a "giant syringe" which had the total capacity of about one barrel of water, and it was mounted on a two-wheeled carriage (Seagrave). Of course there were no airports when fire engines were first developed because there were no airplanes.
Eventually the manpower pump was developed (using a "rocking handle" two or more men could pump water to put out a fire) and eventually a four-cylinder gasoline engine was mounted on a vehicle drawn by horses was developed and mechanically that paved the way for more advanced firefighting technologies (Seagrave).
Today the most modern, advanced technologies are far superior to the methods used in the past. Among the advanced firefighting equipment used in airports is the Ziegler FLF 60/125 device (pictured above). The Ziegler FLS 60/125 features an automatic foam "proportioning system," a roof monitor that has a combination foam and water nozzle (that is remote-controlled), and a bumper nozzle that is electronically controlled and also mixes foam with water automatically (Zieglerfirefighting.com). The water/foam "snozzle" can shoot up to 20 meters to put out aircraft blazes, and it features a "remote controlled thermal imaging camera with integrated temperature measuring device" (Zieglerfirefighting.com).
In addition to those technologies, the FLS 60/125 has a rear view camera (with color monitor), a safety driver's cab with "pneumatic doors," and a water tank that holds 12,500 gallons and a pair of foam tanks that hold 750 gallons each (Zieglerfirefighting.com).
Today's -- and Tomorrow's -- Airport Firefighting Techniques
The newest tool in aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF) that the United States Air Force is using is called the USAF UHP program, including a new USAF P-34 rapid intervention vehicle (RIV). That RIV…