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Training exercise helps prepare for possible chopper crash
It is a call no one ever wants to receive.
The pilot of one of Yuma Proving Ground's UH-72A Lakota helicopters radios the control tower at Laguna Army Airfield (LAAF) that there is a burning electrical smell coming from the instrument panel and that he is losing control of the aircraft.
This time the call for help is only an emergency drill, but all participants realize the possibility that one day the call could be real.
“We are required to exercise our pre-accident plan annually,” said Robert Schultz, aviation safety officer.
As the pilots land on a remote corner of one of LAAF's runways, the control tower contacts range control and the YPG fire department. Within minutes, a crash fire rescue vehicle approaches the downed helicopter spraying water from its attached water cannon, with two ambulances following behind. If the Lakota had really crashed and leaked its hundreds of gallons of fuel, firefighters would use flame-retardant foam instead of water to douse the flames.
As the fire vehicle stops, several firefighters emerge and ready a hose to approach the helicopter. They are dressed in silver proximity gear, heavily-insulated full-body suits and visor-equipped helmets made of aluminized glass fibers and designed to reflect intense heat. Aircraft fires typically burn much hotter than house fires, and aircraft frames are made of composite materials that billow potentially deadly smoke as they burn.
“The safety of the pilots and passengers is the firefighters' number one priority,” said Schultz. “Secondary to that is making an effort to not destroy the helicopter if possible.”
In a helicopter crash, accomplishing these two important goals is a methodical process that must be undertaken rapidly.
“We have to shut the engines down, shut the fuel switches off, and shut the batteries off to make sure the craft is safe for us to get to before we pull out the pilots and passengers,” said John Staggs, fire chief.
“The engine will run for as long as it has fuel,” added Schultz. “It doesn't care if the rotor blades are attached or not.”
If the crashed helicopter's rotor blade is still attached and turning, the firefighters also have to engage the rotor brake to allow personnel to approach the craft from all sides. This done, the firefighters carefully pull the pilots from the Lakota and carry them to waiting stretchers. In a real crash, the injured would be stabilized on the trip to the hospital.
“Overall it went good,” said Staggs of the exercise. “We learned a couple of things that will make us better prepared in the future.”