$3.8 million trainer adds to firefighter readiness
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
First, the outboard engine on the big military cargo jet at Hickam Air Force Base caught fire.
Soon, the entire aircraft was engulfed in fire, throwing heat that could be felt hundreds of yards away.
The worst-case scenario is one Honolulu International Airport hasn't seen in recent memory, and the type of catastrophe Hickam firefighters hope their new $3.8 million live-fire trainer will help them avoid.
During an opening ceremony demonstration last week, Hickam firefighters in two "crash" trucks poured a torrent of water on the burning trainer from top-mounted water cannons.
Crew members didn't even have to get out of the trucks.
The real thing and the full range of training possibilities for the simulator is usually much more complicated.
Col. Bill Kunzweiler, vice commander of the 15th Air Base Wing, told the audience assembled for the ceremony, blessing and untying of a maile lei that firefighters have to be able to practice for the worst.
"Heat factors alone inside that model will create the stress needed to explore tactics, maneuver and look for mannequins inside a burning plane," Kunzweiler said. "The noise of the fire, the sounds of the water flowing, the fire truck pumps that all creates adrenaline and excitement to which we don't know how we're going to react."
Officials said in addition to Hickam's 63-firefighter force, the new trainer adjacent to a taxiway leading to the reef runway will benefit the state airports division, Honolulu Fire Department and federal firefighters, which have mutual aid agreements.
Hickam has three crash trucks that each carry 3,300 gallons of water and 515 gallons of foam. It also has two structural vehicles, two rescue trucks and command-and-control and support vehicles.
Honolulu Deputy Fire Chief John Clark said his department doesn't have a live-fire training facility.
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"There are about eight or 10 scenarios that we can generate," said Hickam Fire Chief William Moore.
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Chevron has structural live-fire modules at its tank farm at Campbell Industrial Park that the Honolulu Fire Department sometimes uses for training, Clark said.
Hickam Fire Chief William Moore said the Navy's federal fire department has a smaller mobile aircraft firefighting trainer, but the Hickam unit brings much greater capabilities.
"It's not just an aircraft mock-up," Moore said. "There are about eight or 10 scenarios that we can generate whether we have one engine fire, two engine fires, the high tail fire which is like the KC-10."
Moore said the trainers, which the Air Force is installing at bases around the world, are designed to replicate "large-frame" aircraft such as C-130s, KC-135s, C-5s and C-17s.
The propane-fed fires in the one-winged metal simulator can spread to the cockpit, wheel wells and fuselage.
"We can do them individually, or we can do them all at once," Moore said. "We've got ground burners out under the wing that will simulate the entire aircraft being on fire."
The scenarios are run from a nearby control tower. A safety officer and chief officer are always present for training fires fueled by a 12,000-gallon tank of liquefied propane.
Kunzweiler noted the trainer is a design that has evolved over 30 years, and is an improvement over old models that used JP-4 or contaminated fuel.
With the hydrocarbon-based fuels, instructors wore detectors to measure their carcinogen exposure, Kunzweiler said.
"Hard to imagine today," he added.
Soil cleanup from ground contamination from the old trainers still is a "severe challenge," he said.
Moore said over the next couple of years the Air Force base also wants to build a three-story structure for firefighters to train on.
Moore said each of his firefighters will need to train on the airplane mock-up a minimum of every six months, so that means they'll be out at the trainer on a weekly basis.
"We expect this to be heavily used by all of the fire departments," Moore said.