Emergency personnel from several area agencies had the chance to refine their skills earlier this month as part of an airplane disaster drill in Kaibab National Forest.
The exercise was part of Grand Canyon National Park Airport’s required training by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Emergency personnel take are of a victim from the Sept. 4 airport disaster drill in Kaibab National Forest. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/GCN)
Every three years, the airport must simulate an aircraft crash in order to maintain its certification levels.
"We found some areas we need to work on, as we always do," airport manager Russ Pankey said after the Sept. 4 exercise. "That’s the real purpose of this drill."
The disaster scenario created by the drill’s planners had a Dornier 340 airplane losing its left engine shortly after takeoff on runway 21 from the airport. The drill’s crash site was located in the forest about a half-mile east of the airport rain tank on the south side of the airport.
The airport purchased an actual plane from a salvage company in Kingman to use in the drill.
"We plan on using it several times, it’s excellent for training," Pankey said of the plane, which served as an 18-passenger, two-crew member aircraft in the drill. That type of plane frequently flies in and out of the Grand Canyon airport.
Before the actual drill, "victims" were prepared with various injuries and briefed on what they were supposed to do. At the crash site, a simulated fire was set with visible smoke coming from the plane.
In the drill scenario, the airport’s air traffic control tower reported seeing smoke. Emergency personnel approached the plane not knowing the type of cargo or condition of passengers and crew.
The call went out at 9:47 a.m., and an airport fire truck was the first to arrive on scene. Firefighters applied a foam solution to the airplane to control the fire. A second airport truck arrived a few minutes later. The Tusayan Fire Department arrived about 10 minutes after the call, followed by the National Park Service and the Forest Service.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office’s Jim Coffey served as the incident commander.
One of the main goals of the drill was to improve communications between the various agencies. Although there were a few snags, Pankey was pleased with the outcome.
"Communications this time was better than in the past," Pankey said. "It seemed to work real well."
While victims were tended to and firefighters dealt with the plane, Forest Service workers headed into the woods to control a simulated wildland fire.
In all, about 100 people took part in the drill. Joining the agencies already mentioned were the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office, Flagstaff Red Cross, FAA and Guardian Medical Transport.
On the afternoon before the drill, Pankey received a real-life concern when he found out a group of Northern Arizona University students could not play the part of victims. So the new victims were all relatives of friends of emergency personnel.
Jackie Denk of Kaibab National Forest said the drill serves an important purpose.
"In terms of a real-world accident, we would be brought together," Denk said. "This helps with the big picture to be able to tie in with the sheriff’s office, airport and others."
Safety was a priority during the drill, which included some children as victims. GCNP’s Sherrie Collins served as the safety officer during the exercise and had the power to stop things immediately in a problem would have been encountered. However, there were no problems.
At a briefing afterward, Terry Olliffee, vice president of Emergency Services International, said things went well.
"We threw some loops at you ... and it’s obvious that you all have more actual experience than some other communities," Olliff said. "You should all pat yourselves on the back. Lives are going to be saved because of what you do."
Pankey graded the drill as a B-plus. In comparison, Pankey gave the 1999 drill a B.
The drill happened to fall one week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack anniversary. Planning the disaster drill was in place because of the three-year FAA requirement, but the events of Sept. 11 have heightened the public’s awareness and respect for emergency personnel.
Pankey said the airport will be confronting some real-life concerns in relation to the Sept. 11 fallout. The airport will be required to screen all charter aircraft beginning Oct. 31. And by the end of the year, the airport must figure out how to screen baggage.
Only four days after the airplane disaster drill, there was an actual plane crash in the Cataract Canyon area about 21 miles from the airport. That accident, the first in the area in a couple of years, claimed the life of a 71-year-old Illinois man.
As for the drill, Pankey said a report was to be put together for the FAA and submitted within 30 days.