BLOOMINGTON -- A charred and battered airplane fuselage could save a lot of lives. A 50-foot aircraft simulator at Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington this week is helping firefighters experience the realities of aircraft firefighting and rescue techniques.
Hands-on experience with an airplane engulfed in flames, forcing entry into a plane and handling a fuel spill were all part of the weeklong training course, which is required for of new firefighters stationed in communities with passenger airports.
On Monday and Tuesday, groups of firefighters in full gear ran through various scenarios with the fire-blackened, steel-gray simulator outside the airport's old terminal. A mobile unit connected by long, sturdy hoses pumped propane to the simulator to fuel eruptions of flame along the fuselage.
In one scenario a team had to knock down the flames and then enter the plane to "rescue" a mannequin.
"It is a dangerous lesson. Temperatures reach 1,200 degrees in this (simulator), and you can't just knock down a wall" of a metal aircraft, said instructor Mark Lee of the University of Missouri Firefighting and Rescue Training Institute, which is providing the course for the Bloomington Fire Department.
In another drill, the airport fire station's aviation fire response vehicle sprayed gallons of powdery chemical fire extinguisher on a fuel spill across the old runway.
Last year, about 560,000 passengers passed through the main terminal of Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, said Adam Baxmeyer, Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority's deputy director. The airport also coordinates about 100 takeoffs or landings of private planes each day, he said.
Baxmeyer also attended class, learning from firefighters and providing them with details of the airport's emergency plan.
Of the Bloomington Fire Department's six stations, two are near the airport. The No. 6 station, which is specially staffed and equipped for airport emergencies, opened last year on East Oakland Avenue.
Some years, when training is needed by only a few firefighters, the Bloomington staff travels elsewhere for the course, said fire Capt. Eric Vaughn. But when the group is larger -- this year, 15 new Bloomington firefighters took part -- it's cheaper to bring the course to Bloomington.
The airport provides the city with about $30,000 annually for training and equipment, said Vaughn. Bringing Lee and his program to the airport cost about $13,500, he added.
Normal and Bloomington Township fire departments and Bloomington's veteran firefighters also took part in the last two days of simulated fire training. About 30 firefighters in all took part, said Lee.
"These accidents just don't happen in the box we call the airport," Vaughn said.
Although Bloomington firefighters would be called to any crash within the city, other departments may get there first, he said.
By bringing in those "mutual aid" departments and airport staff, firefighters can further develop plans to coordinate efforts during an actual emergency, said Lee.
The $1.2 million simulated fuselage is charred from repeated training sessions, but serves its purpose, said Lee.
The device is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Missouri Department of Transportation.
This week, local firefighters have been taking part in University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute training using a 50-foot jet simulator brought to the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington. Its features include:
• The ability to simulate fires in the fuselage, a wing or tail engine, wheels, cargo area, flight deck, passenger compartment and more.
• Replaceable panels that can be cut through
• A 2,600 square-foot area for fuel spill fires.
• An exploding tire simulator
• Specialized simulations such as liquid oxygen or military ordinance
• 115-pound and 145-pound mannequins to simulate passengers