What Structural Firefighters Need to Know about General Aviation Airports Featured

Monday, 07 August 2017 00:00 Written by  Super User
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Guest blog written for ATS by Robert Avsec

General AviationWhen we think about airports in the U.S., most of us likely think about airports like Chicago's O'Hare Airport or Dallas-Fort Worth or LAX in Los Angeles. Those vast facilities with hundreds of take-offs and landings by planes of all sizes heading to domestic and international destinations.

What you may not know is that there are over 19,000 airports, heliports, seaplane bases and other landing facilities in the United States and its territories. The large airports with commercial flight service like LAX and JFK International account for only 378 of the airports in the U.S.

Our nation also relies on another 2,952 landing facilities (2,903 airports, 10 heliports, and 39 seaplane bases) to support aeromedical flights, aerial wildland firefighting, law enforcement, disaster relief, and to provide access to remote communities. These 2,952 landing facilities are primarily used by general aviation (GA) aircraft and are, therefore, commonly referred to as general aviation airports. Included in this group are 121 airports that also support limited scheduled air service boarding at least 2,500, but less than 10,000 passengers each year [1].

The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) classification for GA aircraft includes a wide variety of aircraft, including light planes, experimental crafts, hot air balloons, gliders, helicopters and small jets. According to the FAA, tens of thousands of GA aircraft, including corporate jets, medical evacuation helicopters, and airplanes owned by individuals for business and personal use are flown in the United States each year. In fact, three out of every four takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports are conducted by GA aircraft, and most of these flights occur at general aviation airports [2].

Your fire department likely has a GA airport in its first-due

Roughly 500 of these airports have dedicated aircraft rescue fire fighting (ARFF) on site. And while the ARFF fire departments at those 378 commercial service airports have the resources to be self-sufficient, the remainder rely on mutual aid from their surrounding local fire departments. That still leaves 15,000 plus small airports, helipads, and other take-off and landing sites that rely on their local fire departments in the event of an aircraft crash or fire.

Civil Aircraft and Accidents

Seventy-eight percent of all active GA aircraft, aka, civil aircraft, are single-engine fixed-wing aircraft. Another ten percent of GA aircraft are of the light twin-engine variety. About 12 percent of all active GA aircraft have a weight more than 12,500 lbs. [3].

Surprisingly, the airport is the least likely location for an aircraft accident. It's reported that 95 percent of aircraft accidents happen within 10 miles of an airport [4]. Given this information, structural firefighting departments should recognize GA aircraft crashes as a serious potential hazard to which they can respond.

 Hazards When Responding to a General Aviation Aircraft Crash 

In many respects, structural firefighters should approach a crash or fire involving a GA aircraft—especially fixed wing aircraft and helicopters—just as they would a motor vehicle crash or fire. Once the aircraft is on the ground the primary differences are going to be the configuration of the aircraft and its structural integrity.

Crashes of GA aircraft, however, can present some specific hazards that structural firefighters should be aware of and factor into their incident action plan. These include [5]:

  • - Fires that can involve Class A, B, C or D materials. Today's GA aircraft are constructed with a wide variety of materials: aluminum, magnesium, beryllium, titanium, steel, and composites such as carbon/graphite and boron/tungsten.
  • - Toxic fumes and smoke from the combustion of aircraft fuel and any of the above materials.
  • - Explosion hazards from ordnance (military aircraft), fuel cells, cargo, and oxygen tanks (air medical planes and helicopters).

Get GA Aircraft Specific Training 

For structural firefighters, it's important to have a set of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) specifically focused on response to GA aircraft crashes and fires. These KSAs are essential for their safety, for the safety of the pilot, the passengers, and any others on scene that may be involved (In many cases, GA aircraft have crashed into residential neighborhoods and casualties have included civilians on the ground as well as collateral structure fires).

That training should include: aircraft terminology; types of engines; types of aircraft; hazards associated with materials used in aircraft construction; basic airport operations, hazards when working about operating aircraft; and aircraft-specific hazards, e.g., fixed wing and helicopters. 

Preparation for Response to a GA Aircraft Emergency

Remember those 2,952 landing facilities that the FAA classifies as GA airports? Well, the FAA also includes those GA airports in its National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). That means that they are open to the public, and are eligible for federal funding via the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). When an airport's owners or sponsors accept AIP funds, they must agree to certain obligations (or grant assurances) [6].

And one of those obligations is that they must have an airport emergency plan (AEP) and that they must develop that plan in conjunction with any other organizations or agencies (like your fire department) that are needed to implement the plan. Local fire departments should contact the staff at their local GA airport to find out if they have a plan (call them if they haven't called you) and learn what's expected from your department in the plan.

If they don't have an AEP (or they're one of those other 15,000+ smaller airports and landing facilities that may not be required to have an EOP), make the connection and collaborate on developing an AEP. A good resource is the Emergency Guidebook for General Aviation Airports: A Guidebook for Municipal Airport Managers, published by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Structural firefighters are often the first on scene at GA crashes (remember that 95 percent of those crashes occur within 10 miles of an airport). Proper pre-planning and training and developing a working relationship with your local GA airport staff are the keys to structural firefighters responding to GA aircraft emergencies safely, effectively, and efficiently.


1. FAA. General Aviation Airports: A National Asset. https://www.faa.gov/airports/planning_capacity/ga_study/media/2012AssetReport.pdf
2. Ibid.
3. Don Elliott Columbia Regional Airport. General Aviation Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting Aircraft Familiarization Training. Columbia, Missouri. http://www.slideserve.com/albert/general-aviation
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. FAA. General Aviation Airports: A National Asset. https://www.faa.gov/airports/planning_capacity/ga_study/media/2012AssetReport.pdf

For more information on Action Training Systems video resources call 800.755.1440 ext 3 or email info@action-training.com

Robert Avsec

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va.

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