By John M. Dahlen
Let’s begin with a very short bit of important legalese about the photos for this article. Use of these photos should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the Alaska Airmen’s Association by any part of the Department of Defense. They are being used only as educational and illustrative elements of this article.
A little over 40 years ago, my Flight Instructor had me practicing engine out and dead stick landing approaches in the flying club’s trusty 172. As most of us have heard more than once along the way, he coached me to never panic but rather, to fly the plane all the way to the ground; no matter what is happening. The P.S. he always added to that teaching was simple and basic. Once you panic, you are no longer the pilot in command; but simply enroute to become the first witness to arrive at the crash site.
The first person to arrive at the crash site who wasn’t on board the aircraft when it made its firm arrival is known as a “First Responder” nowadays. Most of us have been thoroughly indoctrinated through TV news, social media, and colloquial conversation to think of Police, Medics, and Fire Fighters as our First Responders based on their professional training and equipment. That respect is well-earned every day, all around this country. But there is another group of people who also find themselves conscripted into being First Responders from time to time without warning – YOU AND ME! While most of us don’t have the equipment or the professional training, and this article won’t provide either, civilian First Responders can play a critical role in helping fellow aviators and their passengers when trouble strikes.
I’ll never forget the sights, sounds, and especially the smells of a burning 206 with 5 people on board when it crashed into an empty house in downtown Anchorage shortly it departed runway 25 at Merrill Field (PAMR) several years ago. Our Anchorage Police and Fire Fighters are very well-trained, the vast majority of them are very professional, and they all know how to safely get somewhere now or sooner when it comes to saving lives! But in the very brief time it took the first arriving Officers to get through the rush hour traffic and to the scene of the crash, a large handful of random everyday people who for various reasons were in the immediate area while the plane crashed, became civilian First Responders, and began collaboratively lifting the bent left wing of the now burning plane in an effort to get the corner of the pilot’s door out of a dirt mound and open. As the first APD Officers arrived, the citizen First Responders were already beginning to get the seriously burned and injured pilot out of the rapidly growing inferno. They were then quickly able to get three of the plane’s remaining four occupants out, albeit all with serious burns and other injuries that the professionals were able to begin treating at the scene. Tragically, the fifth occupant, a four-year-old boy, died on board when the conflagration simply became too intense for anyone to get him out. But the point is that, had the citizen First Responders not responded, it is very likely that no one would’ve survived the crash that day.
You, too, might find yourself a de facto citizen First Responder to an airplane crash sometime, if you haven’t already. Fortunately, there’s no guarantee but the odds are good that it will be nothing as dangerous or tragic as that one was. After all, it is not commonly known outside of aviation circles, but about 95% of all people involved in airplane crashes of all shapes and sizes in the US survive, and the last fatal crash of a major airline in the US was 10 years ago on July 6, 2013 when Asiana flight 214 landed short at SFO killing 3 and injuring 187 of the 304 persons on board. But as we enjoy our peak flying season, it might be useful to proactively consider some of the dangers and other considerations involved in case you find yourself being an unplanned citizen First Responder.
I offer this information, not as an expert, but as one who has been an untrained citizen First Responder to a couple of crashes over the years; the one above being by far the worst. In each instance, I found myself without a clear notion of how to organize my responses. But adrenaline has a way of sharpening the mind in the moment. I have since done a bit of learning, and want to share some of that learning with you, with the intent of stimulating you to proactively pursue your own learning. From time to time, the FAASTeam (www.faasafety.gov/) offers a free, 4-hour online course for First Responders and Pilots. (I know…it’s not really “free” when our tax dollars fund the program. But there is no fee for these opportunities}! There is also a hands-on Part Two to this program at a couple locations in the lower 48. I will be looking into if a Part Two day is available up here and, if not, looking into what it will take to get one going. Much of the following information is from that 4-hour Part One online course, which I highly recommend for all Pilots to take when the opportunity arises. If you aren’t already subscribed to receive notices, take a look at the FAASTeam site and sign up to receive ongoing info about a steady stream of upcoming learning opportunities on a wide variety of aviation safety-related topics; all qualifying for Wings credit. Meanwhile, the odds are significant that you might find yourself being an unplanned citizen First Responder out on one of your fishing/hunting trips, hundred-dollar hamburger excursions, or gravel bar get-togethers sooner or later! So let’s begin to scratch the surface on this topic.
As with any complex activity, the first step is to have a preconceived framework of overall priorities. In responding to an aircraft, here’s one framework with details you can apply in a perfect world. Delegate if you have others available to help. In a real-life scenario, such as the one above, not all of the following tasks are going to be realistic. But the more you review them, the more organized and valuable your actions as a citizen First Responder are likely to be.
- Call 911 as you approach and assess the scene. Remember that ELTs have been known to fail. Provide 911 with location and any readily available details about location, aircraft type, any known injuries and fatalities, any fire or known hazards, and accessibility to the site by emergency vehicles. Have 911 notify the NTSB and FAA. Depending on the circumstances, an ATC might also have already done so. Potential hazards will be discussed more in depth later in this article.
- Protect and provide safety for survivors and civilian First Responders as much as possible until help arrives. Wear any personal protective equipment you might have – eye protection, gloves, etc. LOOK UP, DOWN, AND ALL AROUND! Remember to look up for wreckage in trees or overhanging wires, etc. Look down for fallen wires, trip hazards, leaking fluids/flammables, etc. Look around for loose animals, parts of the wreckage, other trip hazards, ground scars, etc. Do not move a survivor, whether in or already out of the aircraft, unless absolutely necessary to save a life. Medical personnel are trained to treat and move persons with potential spine injuries in ways that minimize the risk of further injuring the survivor. If at all possible, shield all fatalities from public view (including from overhead drone cameras!) as soon as possible.
- Protect the public as much as possible by keeping them out of the area and warning them of known or potential hazards until help arrives. This is an especially good one to delegate if one or more people are available for this task.
- Identify potential hazards (including hazardous materials) not previously observed, and communicate such findings to other responders.
- Secure and preserve the crash site from being disturbed, including any ground markings and separated wreckage or remains. In the event of fatalities, shield them from public view as soon as possible, and do not remove them from wherever they are located unless absolutely necessary. Do not allow anyone without NTSB, FAA, or Local Law Enforcement ID into the scene, and do not express any statements, observations, or opinions to anyone without these same IDs. Take as many pictures of the site and surrounding terrain as possible, and of any switches, controls, cargo, or anything else you move before doing so. Advise arriving Investigators showing proper ID that you have these pictures. Under no circumstances are these pictures to be shared publicly or privately with others in person, via social media, with the press, or via any other means. Anticipate Investigators asking you to turn over your phone/camera to them during the investigation.
- Document! Document as much detail as possible via photographs, hand-written notes, or voice recordings into your phone. Documentation is listed lowest on this priority framework. But the more the wreckage and crash scene get disturbed, the more valuable all documentation becomes. Never move a fatality prior to an NTSB or FAA Investigator’s approval, even if it is already out of the aircraft, unless doing so is absolutely necessary to save another survivor. When doing so, note the location and position of the body (e.g. – any blunt force trauma injury to a part of the head or body that is still positioned against the object that appears to have been the cause}, and its condition [e.g. – frozen, cyanotic (blue), etc].
The following discussion does not cover all the potential hazards of an aircraft crash scene. But as aviation technology has advanced, new kinds of potential hazards have been part of the price of progress. We’ve already touched on fires and flammable fluid spills; parts falling out of trees or from overhead wires (or related structures}; wild or unleashed animals; tripping hazards including parts of the wreckage, ruts or ditches, fallen live wires, or other items on the ground not related to the crash. Here are a couple other hazards to consider.
AvGas and Jet Fuel: Extreme care must be taken not to ignite leaking fuel if it is not already burning. Besides preserving the crash scene, another reason not to move wreckage is the potential for inadvertently striking sparks.
Carbon Fiber aircraft parts: Carbon fiber is rapidly making its way into the aircraft industry. If you arrive at a crash site where carbon fiber is burning, and you happen to have an N-95 mask handy, wear it. Carbon Fiber dust has a thickness of 10-20 microns, or 1/5th the thickness of a human hair. And inhaling carbon fiber dust is more dangerous than asbestos. If you know a burning aircraft is at least partially carbon fiber, advise 911 of this when you call.
Ballistic Parachute Recovery Systems: The system is simply a parachute for the entire plane that is released with an explosive discharge when triggered in the cockpit. The Cirrus line of aircraft are the best known among GA aircraft equipped with BPRS. Other aircraft are rapidly becoming BPRS – equipped now too. On the Cirrus airplanes, and most other aircraft so equipped, the chute is ejected through a panel on the top, between the passenger compartment and the empennage. However, note that on the Cirrus jets, the chute is ejected out the top-front of the aircraft. Why is knowledge about the presence of a ballistic parachute important to any First Responder? If you don’t see shroud lines and a parachute on the ground around the crash site of a BPRS-equipped aircraft, the parachute hasn’t been deployed, and there is an armed live explosive still on board the aircraft that can accidentally be discharged during rescue operations. When triggered, it can release 225 pounds of thrust travelling 100 mph toward people in the vicinity! If the system is still armed, alert arriving Fire and other First Responding officials immediately. They should handle the disabling of the explosive. Unless it’s a life-or-death necessity, extricating the aircraft’s survivors is better done only after the BPRS explosive has been disarmed. Note that if the parachute and shroud lines are already on the ground near the wreckage, there is no longer an explosive hazard associated with it. Cut the shroud lines or park a truck on them to prevent wind from rearranging wreckage. Remember to document the scene before you cut any lines or move anything.
Military aircraft: In the unlikely event that you are first on the scene of a fighter jet crash, there is the obvious possibility of live munitions, flares, radar chaff and missiles on board. Note that missiles marked in blue are inert. But missiles marked in yellow are live. Also observe the condition of the canopy. If it is still closed and intact, the ejection seat is still armed. Rest assured that the military will be along to handle these explosives and everything else as soon as you call 911, if not, much sooner!
Drones: I am not a droney, but here is my take on use of drones during emergency ops. If a civilian drone is going to be used specifically as part of the crash response, (e.g. – for mapping the site or locating additional pieces or ground scars, etc.), it is considered a commercial Part 107 operation. The drone must be under 55 pounds, and may only be used for line-of-sight flight. The drone operator has the see-and-avoid responsibility for all other aircraft. A waiver that includes an emergency TFR is required for any flight outside line-of-sight. There is an online procedure to rapidly obtain the waiver and emergency TFR. Only government-operated drones may self-certify to operate under a Certificate of Authorization (COA). Unauthorized drones (e.g. – news media, personal snoops, social media use, etc.), and drones operating out of line-of-site without the necessary waiver and emergency TFR disrupt other aerial ops such as aerial rescues and medivacs at the scene. Such unauthorized flights should be immediately reported to ATC if interfering with airport ops; and to the 24-hour NTSB Response Operations Center (ROC: 844-373-9922) or local FSDO Field Agents if impacting airspace safety. All drone accidents and incidents must be immediately reported via the most expeditious means possible to the NTSB. The NTSB ROC operates 24 hours/day. Many people don’t realize that a drone strike will do more damage to an airplane than a bird of the same weight!
People asking questions: Don’t answer any questions, share any observations/photos/documentation, or express any opinions/speculations to anyone without asking them to show you their NTSB, FAA, or Local Law Enforcement Official ID first. These are the people who are seeking the facts with an eye on understanding and prevention. News reporters, social media influencers and influencer wannabees, lawyers and private investigators, and other non-credentialed people asking questions are doing so with very different agendas. If you absolutely can’t resist the urge to provide answers to their questions, let it consistently be, “No comment, thank you.”
After it’s over: It’s quite common for people to have strong emotional reactions to responding to such an event, although not everyone reacts the same way. I have known people living with post-traumatic stress who had experiences where they literally thought they were “going insane” (their words, not mine)! If you experience overwhelming emotional responses, know that this is pretty normal for a time. If it continues at an intensity that interferes with your work or quality of life for too long, talk to someone or write about it in a journal for awhile. You’re not crazy or emotionally weak. You’ve just been traumatized in the course of doing something good for someone else.
Take care, and enjoy a safe fishing, hunting, and fly-in season!
John Dahlen is an Alaska Airmen’s Association life member, the association’s volunteer US/Russia Liaison, past Vice President, past Ramp Boss, a regular writer for the Transponder, and has been known to play Santa Claus for special events occasionally. He always welcomes correspondence and other interactions with members, and is available as a free-loading hitchhiker to cover fly-ins or other GA events in 2023. Has tent, will travel! If you have suggestions for future articles, or you want more information about an article already published, he can be reached at OneAlaskanGuy@hotmail.com or by phone/text at (907) 830-5889.
Before Coast Guard help arrived at this crash site at Dry Bay (SE AK), civilian First Responders had already been able to get three of the four occupants out of the plane, and had secured two of them on backboards. Coast Guard personnel were able to get the last passenger out and secured to a backboard. All four were flown to Yakutat and then Anchorage for medical care. (Photo: US Coast Guard, District 17).
A civilian First Responder saw this crash happen in North Carolina. He immediately drove his 4-wheel drive truck across the field and was able to pull the pilot from the burning wreckage, saving his life before additional help arrived. (Photo: NC Army National Guard).
As this Cessna 180 shows, you might find yourself becoming a civilian First Responder any time of year. Fortunately, these three were able to summon help and get themselves out of their plane. Note that they were dressed for the weather, so were still in good condition when the Coast Guard arrived to bring them back to civilization. (Photo: US Coast Guard, District 17).