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This Monday, December 8. an F/A-18D returning to Miramar Naval Air station from the USS Abraham Lincoln encountered some type of engine problem off the coast of San Diego, forcing the pilot to eject seconds before the jet slammed into a neighborhood just outside the airbase. The resulting explosion destroyed two homes and damaged three more. The most tragic result was the death of four members of one family, who were unfortunately home at the time. An additional 20 homes in the area were evacuated because of the smoke and heat.

Shortly after the crash, a politician said he wanted to conduct an investigation to ensure that this type of incident would never happen again. This type of comment, although understandable, clearly illustrates the lack of comprehension on the part of the general public to the dangers involved in high-risk occupations. We know that the United States Navy and Marine Corps provide excellent training, excellent maintenance, and demand all their pilots undergo the most rigorous training. All of this notwithstanding, the United States Navy and Marine Corps understand that failures will occur.

No system, no machine, no individual is perfect, and so one must anticipate the occasional failure, the occasional accident, and the consequences. The consequences are what must be mitigated. Now if this particular politician is going to ensure that no Navy jets ever fly again over a neighborhood in San Diego, then he can in fact have his dream come true. But barring a complete and total ban of naval aircraft over the San Diego civilian airspace, no one can guarantee there won't be another accident.

What can happen is this: The United States Navy and Marine Corps need to investigate this incident and look at all the systemic issues that came together tragically to cause this accident. We would hope that now, with all we understand about the systemic nature of accidents, the pilot is not identified as the cause. Unfortunately, this is all too often the case in air-related events. This represents the easiest way out, and therefore the most common way out, by some unmotivated investigator who is all too happy to say it was simply human error. Any event, especially transportation accidents that involve human beings as operators, pilots, or engineers, generally gets labeled as human error.

In order to understand how errors occur, how failures happen, and what really causes an accident, we need to let go of what Prof. Sidney Dekker, Ph.D, calls the old view. We must adopt what Prof. Dekker calls a new view of human error. Then and only then we recognize that the accident in this case a tragic plane crash is enmeshed in almost spiderweb of complex, interconnected, and yet independent causes. There is no root cause, there is no primal cause, it was not just human error--it was clearly a systemic failure.

In these events, firefighters are the first to be called and we must be ready. From the firefighter perspective, it's our job to be prepared for these events and not to assume that we can make them all go away. In that regard I would suggest that you read the drill on military aircraft located at this link:
Hold the drill this week. Connect the drill in context to this tragic event. Have your folks read the article in Fire Engineering. Have them look at the video, which is still available in our video section from the ABC news report. Bring this event to life in your training. Just because you do not happen to live underneath an airbase does not mean that you should not be prepared. These events can happen anywhere the United States; Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Army , and Coast Guard aircraft, fly over every state in the union. You owe it to your residences in your town and you owe it to the outstanding pilots of those fine aircraft to be prepared to respond when they need you. Don't think about it. Do it. To quote Adm. Rickover, it's easy to talk about doing things. It's a whole a other matter to get them done. Firefighters get it done.

If you want to really do more to get prepared, read a great article by John Carr and Les Omans titled "Responding to Commercial Aircraft Hazmat Incidents." In this article, they address some of the issues with military aircraft.

Just a few things to keep in the back of your mind when you're dealing with a downed military aircraft. Stay away anything painted yellow and black. Remember, these aircraft carry ordnance, weapons, and oftentimes have security systems. If you have a military base near your fire department, request training on what to do and who to contact in the event of a downed military aircraft. During my time at the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department, the members of the Kirkland Air Force Base were always more than willing to put on classes for us at any time as to what to do if one of their aircraft were compromised or had to make an emergency landing.

The fire service is all about relationships. We need to continue to foster good relationships with our partners, particularly with the military bases in our first due. For more good reading on aircraft emergencies, read "Fire Department Response to Helicopter Emergencies" by Jerry Knapp, Christopher Flatley, and Wayne Sutherland, available here:
My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the family who lost their lives on Monday. My thoughts and prayers and deepest condolences go out to the brave Marine pilot when sure did everything he could to direct that aircraft away from any homes prior to ejecting. Until next time, stay safe and remember, be careful out there.


posted by Bobby Halton
12/11/2008 06:39:00 PM

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