How to Put Out an Airplane Fire

PIT’s fire training course attracts airport personnel from around the world

By Julie Bercik

Published October 17, 2022

Read Time: 2 mins


49“It’s dark, it’s hot,” said Shon Dempsey. “It’s a little nerve wracking for someone who has never crawled in an airplane that’s on fire.”

Dempsey is the assistant airport manager at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland, but on this day he was dressed as a firefighter. He was in Pittsburgh for a 40-hour aircraft rescue firefighting course taught by instructors at Pittsburgh International Airport’s Fire Department.

The cardinal rule at every airport is “to make the airport as safe as it possibly can be,” he said. “Anytime you can just chip away multiple layers to remove any sort of barrier that would be in the way of any future accident, I feel like it’s necessary to try and take care of that ahead of time and make sure we are knowledgeable.”

PIT’s FAA Fire Training Facility offered the training. The facility attracts groups and fire departments from across the world. Everyone who is an instructor at PIT’s facility is a Pennsylvania State Certified Fire Instructor.

People in the most recent training class came from five other states, said Chief Tom Bonura of the Allegheny County Airport Authority Fire Department.

A combination of classroom and live training, the 40-hour-training teaches the basics of aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF), keeping in mind that not all participants have firefighting experience.

“We have to teach them how to use a hose, how to wear their self-contained breathing apparatus, which is the air tank and the mask we wear, up to the point of how you ladder an aircraft if you have to get up inside,” said Lt. Brad Kaiser of the airport authority’s fire department. Live fire scenarios allow participants to put the skills and techniques they learned to use. One training scenario is a possible wheel brake fire.

“They would run through a scenario – are they going to use the truck, are they going to pull a hand line and put some water on it to try to put it out?” said Kaiser. “Where those techniques come, especially anything that’s burning under the wing, we want to protect the wing cause that’s where all the fuel is. So, we want to get that fire out but also keep that metal under the wing cool, so it won’t burn through and create a bigger incident.”

Training also includes using the ARFF rapid intervention vehicle, which carries 1,500 gallons of water, with around 900 gallons a minute flowing out of its turret.

The training was done in conjunction with the Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives, a partnership that began in 2000.

“This is technically the 23rd annual ARFF School for the NEC,” said Bonura.

A grant from the NEC made it possible for Shon Demsey to come to Pittsburgh for training he said he can bring back to his airport.

“I feel like I’m going to have plenty of knowledge and just textbook type stuff to bring back to my airport and help out our local firefighters that show up to our airports,” he said.

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