Newport News airport, mutual aid partners conduct airplane crash drill

Sarah J. Ketchum
Contact Reportersketchum@dailypress.com

The Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport and mutual aid partners conducted an exercise Wednesday, testing local capabilities to respond to an airplane crash.

The drill united multiple agencies, including airport officials, police and fire personnel; the Newport News and York County fire departments; Newport News and Virginia State police; and Federal Aviation Administration officials. Students from the Denbigh Aviation Academy and Hampton University also participated as mock victims and family members.

The exercise is required every three years as part of the airport's FAA Part 139 regulations, according to airport spokeswoman Jessica Wharton. The airport has its own fire and police departments, but help from multiple agencies would be needed during an actual airplane crash.

"It's key, because we're small ... that everybody practices this with us," she said.

The drill

In the scenario, a flight was attempting to land with 60 passengers, three crew members and 8,000 pounds of fuel. The pilot reported a possible hydraulic problem.

The aircraft touched down, but its main landing gear collapsed due to insufficient hydraulic pressure. It skid off the runway and caused a fire on impact. Airport fire personnel were alerted and responded immediately.

During the exercise Wednesday, airport firefighters arrived where a crashed plane was staged. A fire was set next to the staged plane so responders could react as they would during a real crash. The firefighters confirmed the crashed plane, requesting mutual aid, and quickly put out the blaze with a foam.

Fighting airplane fires requires specialized gear and materials because of the fuel, airport fire Chief D. Starks told the Daily Press. Airport firefighters wear silver-colored gear to reflect the heat, and the foam suppresses the fuel vapors.

"It's all based on FAA regulations," Starks said.

Crews put out the blaze and then assessed the crashed plane for other hazards. Meanwhile, airport personnel requested mutual aid and set up a command post at the airport fire station. The site is a gathering place for everyone needed to organize the required resources to respond to the crash.

Controlling the chaos

Newport News Fire Department Battalion Chief Jay Culpepper arrived and established command. Other emergency vehicles followed and staged near the crash site waiting for instructions. Emergency scenes are often chaotic, Culpepper told the Daily Press. Setting up a command helps control the chaos by giving it structure. Responders receive instructions and provide feedback to the commander to keep the scene organized and ensure responders' safety.

"The whole thing is communication and coordination to achieve mitigation," Culpepper said.

A fire captain was appointed to control search and rescue operations at the scene, freeing up Culpepper to act as a resource manager. While crews located, triaged and treated patients, he was able to coordinate with other responding crews and assisting agencies.

While emergency crews are responding, others begin coordinating resources needed after the response, airport spokeswoman Wharton explained.

Airport officials set up areas for the media and the victims' friends and families, as well as worked with the airlines to deploy support teams. Local police assisted with other support functions. In a real event, they might evacuate the airport and handle traffic control, according to Wharton.

Eventually, the scene would be turned over to Virginia State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate.

"There's just a ton of moving parts," Wharton said.

Debriefing

Everyone met afterward to discuss what they learned and what could be improved. The most common problem they encountered was communication. At one point, the command post was overwhelmed with too much information. Having more staff at the post would resolve that problem, officials said.

Overall, officials said the exercise went well, and no one was injured. In addition to the training, it allowed crews to interact with mutual aid partners they don't normally work with, Newport News Fire Department Chief R. B. Alley III said.

"The critical thing is getting this face-to-face contact and getting to know each other's names," he said.

Ketchum can be reached by phone at 757-247-7478.

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