5 Days of Training to Fight Airplane Fires

Firefighters, aviation professionals, students sharpen skills at PIT

By gmastrangelo & Julie Bercik

Published October 23, 2023

Read Time: 3 mins


On a recent Monday, Sophie Burke started a new job at the Erie International Airport. By that Thursday, she was entering a burning mock airplane, ready to put out a fire.

ERI is Burke’s first job after graduating in August with a bachelor’s degree in airport management and operations from Purdue University.

As an operations and facility specialist, she needs to know how to fight fires, which is what brought her to a five-day airport firefighter training course at Pittsburgh International Airport.

PIT’s Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) training program is designed to provide high-quality training to emergency responders. Each year, training is held at PIT’s ARFF facility, which attracts fire departments and groups from across the world.

This year, aviation students from the Community College of Allegheny County had a front row seat to the training. They watched from every angle as trainees raced toward a burning mock plane and practiced putting out a fire with water.

After two years in the program, the CCAC students have learned a lot about aviation-related incidents, but seeing one is a different experience.

“It’s one thing to read a book,” said Marty Meinert, one of the students at the training. “This is three-dimensional. You’re seeing it, hearing it, smelling it.”

The plane installation at the facility is designed to burn over and over again, and instructors task the trainees with different emergency response scenarios to prepare them for a real incident. Certified fire instructors from PIT lead the course with the goal of making attendees’ airports as safe as possible.

With hopes to become a certified flight instructor after he finishes pilot training, Meinert was grateful to be able to observe the firefighters in action. Drew Leui, another student, feels like the fire training shows him what to expect in case he encounters an incident while flying.

“It really gives you a chance to get an idea of what it would really be like in a real situation,” he said.

Fire director Marc Strauss of Mercer County, New Jersey, has heard about the fire training at PIT for years, but this is the first year he’s attended. Groups from his department started training at PIT in 2020; considering his county has an airport under its jurisdiction, he decided it was time he took the course as well.

“It is 100 percent worthwhile. I am really happy with the relationship that we formed with Allegheny (County) and the training center and the airport out here,” Strauss said. “You can’t beat it. They bring so much to the table for us.”

Turns out, he wasn’t the only Strauss at training this year; his 22-year-old son took part, too. With only a month of experience at his fire department under his belt, he was already learning how to fight aviation fires, a concept new to his father as well.

“It’s been a learning experience,” the older Strauss said. “Just when you think you know it all, you learn something new. You can never train enough.”

As for Burke, the training at PIT was her first time ever putting out a fire, aviation-related or not. Her heart was racing as soon as she saw the flames for the first time, but that didn’t stop her from doing her job.

“They really prepared me even though I’m very new to this and some of these people have been doing this for 30 years,” she said. “I could go back to my airport and, if something did happen, I could run into that truck, drive it out there and put out a fire.”

The training gives Burke another skill she’ll need for a lifelong career in the industry.

“I have always loved aviation,” she said. “And now I’m learning something I never thought I would be.”

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