Crash 3 Alpha

Above: Foam is always applied first to create a good surface layer all around the aircraft. (KEY-Mark Ayton)

Mark Ayton spent a day with a crew of fire fighters at RAF Marham, Norfolk, UK, with a ringside seat for everything from a blazing drill to a real-life emergency.

Foam is always applied first to create a good surface layer all around the aircraft. (KEY-Mark Ayton)

Just as the duty controller sat back down at the control room desk, the phone rang.  He picked it up. “Crash Bays,” he answered.
“This is Air Traffic Controller, we have a Tornado with hot-breaks, the aircraft is armed, 2 POB and requests immediate assistance at HAS 59, came the reply.
The Controller hit the ‘man up’ button activating the alarm throughout the fire station.  The building immediately came alive.  Men rushed from their respective offices and workshops to the fire appliances parked ‘ready to go’ in the bays out front.  Scrambling to change into their fire fighting clothing, each driver was first into the cab to start engines.  With the bay doors up, the engines of the 26-tonne Major Foam Vehicle (MFV) and the Rapid Intervention Vehicle (RIV) roared into life.  Within seconds each of the crews was aboard and the appliances sped out of the station, sirens wailing.  The Tornado was parked at a hardened aircraft shelter located in the South East part of RAF Marham, a mile away from the fire station.  Crash combine (the radio call sign for the two fire trucks) were cleared by the tower to proceed direct to HAS 59; the crew commander, fully familiar with the location, sped down the taxiway and across Marham’s 24 Threshold leading on to its 10,000ft (3,048m) runway.
Meanwhile the crew of the Tornado had shut down their aircraft and were awaiting the arrival of the crash combine risk of fire being their primary concern.
As soon as the branch lines were fully run out a self-charging mechanism allowed foam to be pumped straight through to the waiting branch men. (Paul Ridgeway)

The RIV first on scene, Corporal Dineen jumped out of his appliance, proceeded over to the aircraft and saw smoke coming from the wheel brake assembly.  His first job was to check the temperature of the wheels and brakes to determine which treatment to use.  Using his Raytech temperature gun, Corporal Dineen took the reading, which showed a temperature high enough to warrant the crew to be on standby.  If it was to catch fire he would signal his crew, who would immediately wrap the wheel with a retardant blanket and spray dry powder over it to extinguish and remove any danger of further combustion.
The crew of the other tender was busy running out a branch line and ensuring the weapon systems had been made safe with the fitting of pins.
“Hot brakes is the most common call-out,” said Flt Sgt Ian Chappell, RAF Marham’s Deputy Station Fire Officer.  “It occurs when the pilot has to excessively apply the brakes on landing, which makes the brakes and wheels assembly very hot which could then combust.”
The anxiety of the situation at HAS 59 eased, the wheel brake assembly was gradually cooling down and the Crew Commander was happy that the jet was safe, however, the fire crew stay on standby and the ground crew are informed that refuelling and servicing will not commence for at least 30 minutes.  The problem now is that the aircraft may be needed for the next sortie but, due to the incident, this may be put back or the sortie cancelled.
For the fire crew it was a job well done.  Valued at £25 million (US$41m) per aircraft, the response and actions of the fire fighters have averted potential damage being sustained by an essential Royal Air Force strike asset.  Crash combine was cleared to return to the station.
Crash 3 Alpha
When flight operations are underway RAF Marham’s fire station is run to a manpower and capability requirement known as Crash 3 Alpha.  This means that a crew of six personnel (a sergeant, a corporal, and four others) are on call with two vehicles at any time.  Three people man each vehicle.  “The sergeant normally goes on the MFV as crew commander with two fire fighters, the corporal mans the RIV with the other two,” explained Flt Sgt Chappell.
Classification is based on two main factors.  The first is the rate at which the team can ‘give’ foam and water to fight the fire.  The second is all about the type of aircraft operating from the station:  its length, width, fuel, passenger capacities, payloads, armaments and dangerous cargo.
About 65ft from the fire, SAC Reece Laffar, in control of the main monitor on the top of the vehicle, began attacking the fire with foam as the vehicle moved in. (KEY-Mark Ayton)

As a Tornado GR4 Station RAF Marham requires Crash 3 Alpha whereas Brize Norton, home of the RAF’s much larger C-17s, Tristar and VC10s, requires Crash 5 Alpha.  This comprises 12 personnel and four vehicles; three main foam vehicles (MFVs) and one rapid intervention vehicle (RIV).
During silent hours (those without flying), the station runs at domestic manning level comprising a Corporal and three other SAC/LAC airmen.
Different Calls
A ‘hot brakes’ call is just one of many types of incident referred that the fire crews deal with.  Occasionally, the call comes for a RHAG engagement.  RHAG stands for Rotary Hydraulic Arresting Gear.  A RHAG system provides a means by which to stop (arrest) a landing aircraft suffering an emergency, such as loss of power in one engine or loss of hydraulic pressure.  The RHAG employed by the RAF uses paddles that rotate in liquid to generate a braking effect and stop the aircraft on the runway.
Flt Sgt Chappell explained: “Air Traffic let us know that we have a possible RHAG engagement.  We must go to our predetermined positions close to the runway.  Once the aircraft has taken the RHAG, Crash 1 goes straight to the aircraft and places chocks under the wheels to allow the pilot to release the brakes.”
“The pilot goes through the shut down procedures, while the Crew carries out checks of the aircraft to ensure it is safe to move.  Once this is complete the Crew Commander will then hand over to the engineers, who then push the aircraft back, unhook the cable and place the hook back up under the aircraft.  The aircraft is then towed from the runway.”
“Specialists from the Ground Engineering Flight, who conduct all regular maintenance to the systems and carry out all work necessary to re-set the RHAG, are not the first people on the scene of an emergency, fire fighters are.  Consequently, RAF Fire Fighters must qualify every six months in the use and operation of the RHAG.”
Another similar incident is smoke in the cockpit.  Flt Sgt Chappell continued: “”The Crash Combine gets called to determine the nature of the situation and to open up the cockpit to release all the fumes.  Then assist in the extrication of the aircrew.”
“Fire-fighters are the first on the scene before any ground engineers, so they have to know how to approach the aircraft, where to walk, where not to walk and how to communicate with the aircrew.”
"If you just stand still and attack the fire slowly, you’re going to get burned by heat radiating from the sides, so you have to move quickly," Flt Sgt Chappell. (Key-Mark Ayton)

“Normally the RIV will get to any incident first, the deputy crew commander immediately makes contact with the aircrew to signal his intent; perhaps he might go underneath the aircraft to deal with the problem, or he may simply determine what the pilot wants.  Meanwhile the other members of the crew will gather all pieces of equipment they may need for the incident and await further instruction.”
“The pilot closes down the aircraft, pins are put into the seats to make them safe and the aircrew get themselves out.”
During emergencies like these, regular training really pays off.  Every month Marham fire fighters continuously undertake familiarisation training on the Tornado GR4 to ensure they are fully capable of dealing with any situation that could occur.  Fire fighters also need to qualify on the ejection seat every six months.
Fire Drill
During the author’s visit, the fire station undertook one of its weekly drills using the aircraft simulator to create a real inferno known as a ‘hot fire’.
The day’s scenario for the drill involved a RAF BAe125.  An executive jet used to transport senior RAF officers and government ministers; it was classified as a large-bodied jet that had crash-landed on the runway.
“We can choose any incident we require, the simulator is designed to replicate a fast jet, and large-bodied aircraft or a helicopter,” Flt Sgt Chappell explained.
“Standing a safe distance away from the fire simulator I watched the entire drill, one of the most fascinating events that I have had the privilege to experience.” Here’s how the duty crew fought the fire and rescued the passengers of the BAe125.
First up, Cpl Dineen set the simulator on fire by walking up to the structure and using a hand-held blowtorch to set the monster ablaze.  Fuel was supplied to the simulator under the control of Flt Sgt Chappell.  The air around the facility was heavy with the smell of aviation gas and, as might be expected, the temperature rose considerably as flames engulfed the rusty hulk.
"We can choose any incident we require, the simulator is designed to replicate a fast jet, and large-bodied aircraft or a helicopter," Flt Sgt Chappell explained. (KEY-Mark Ayton)

At the controls of the MFV SAC Andrew Dowell sped to the scene and swept past in the Carmichael 27-tonner.  About 65ft (20m) from the fire, SAC Reece Laffar, in control of the main monitor on top of the vehicle, began attacking the fire with foam as the vehicle moved in.  The bumper monitor was also being used to cover the ground immediately in front of the vehicle, preventing running fuel from igniting.
Once the vehicle had stopped, SAC Laffar continued putting down the flames until the two branch men, SAC Murray and SAC Pritchard, had run out their branch lines (one on either side) ready to attack the fire.
As soon as the branch lines were fully run out a self-charging mechanism allowed foam to be pumped straight through to the waiting branch men.
“We normally knock off the monitor, to allow the branch men in to start fighting the fire at close proximity”.  The idea being to push the flame mass away from the critical area (the point of the aircraft with the greatest life risk).
Foam is always applied first to create a good surface layer all around the aircraft.  It has rapid knockdown rate. “The idea is to knock it down quickly, advance, knock it down, advance, if he just stands still in one spot he will simply waste foam and time,” said the Deputy Station Fire Officer.
The two branch men were doing well using fire eater branch nozzles enveloping the ground with foam and, in conjunction with SAC Laffar up on the MVF roof monitor, made fast progress beating the fire down, allowing them to reach the cockpit and cabin door within 90 seconds of arriving on scene.
They ensured all fuel was covered with a foam layer and avoided dragging their hoses through the foam, which could potentially create a gap and easily ignite.
At this point they started to cool the aircraft changing their media from foam to water using the Acron diffuser branch.  Once the aircraft was sufficiently cooled the two branch men entered the airframe ensuring all internal potentially explosive fire gases were cooled.  Once inside, the branch men quickly extinguished all internal pocket fires, located the casualty and extracted them to safety.
For the four fire fighters involved in the drill, SAC’s Andrew Dowell, Matt Murray, Reece Laffar and Matt Pritchard, the training provided them with another vital chance to learn what they need to do in a dangerous situation and reinforced the need for each of them to think for themselves.
From the time Reece started attacking the fire until Matt and Andy recovered the one casualty on board, the entire drill lasted approximately four minutes not just any four minutes, but four minutes that potentially saved somebody’s life.
After completing the drill the crew immediately replenished the MFV with water and foam on site to ensure that it remained ready should another call come in.
Flt Sgt Chappell outlined a number of aspects of the simulator drill. “As the operator of the simulator I can increase or reduce the intensity of the fire,” he said. “If the crew is doing well, then I slowly turn it off until it cuts out.  If I don’t think they’re doing so well then I put the fire back on, it rages up and they have to control it again.”
Discussing the heat intensity he said, “If you just stand still and attack the fire slowly, you’re going to get burned by heat radiating from the sides, hence why they have to move quickly.”
And what about the pressure of the foam and water through the pipe?  The monitor produces 14 bars, on the 45mm diameter branch line it goes through a reducer and down to about 7 bars. “A man wouldn’t be able to hold on to 14 bars it would knock him off his feet,” he added.
The fire simulator is not the only facility regularly used by the fire fighters at the west Norfolk base.  RAF Marham also has a Breathing Apparatus Facility, which is used every month for training.  Equipped with a heater to create a hot atmosphere and a generator to create smoke, teams have to enter the facility to locate casualties.  “With smoke, visibility is zero, so you really have to do all your breathing apparatus drills correctly,” said Flt Sgt Chappell.
He summed up: “For health and safety reasons we do not use live fire so there is no flame, which is the only thing that’s not real about the Breathing Apparatus facility, hence why we have the heater and smoke generator.  Nevertheless, we must ensure that our training remains as realistic as possible so we are all prepared for real situations.”
RAF Marham Fire Department
Total personnel 37 comprising:
1 Warrant Officer
1 Flight Sergeant
5 Sergeants all of whom are Crew Commanders
6 Corporals who are all Deputy Crew Commanders
24 SACs/LACs Firemen