Friday, July 22, 2005

At a Canadian Airport . . .

At nine in the morning, on an otherwise fine day, a Boeing 737 ingested an eagle into its starboard engine on short final, with no time to prepare the passengers for an unusual landing. The pilots momentarily lost control of the airplane and it struck the runway hard, causing numerous passenger injuries, a few fatal. The cabin filled with smoke as air from the burning engine entered the system. Many passengers suffered smoke inhalation and some were burned. The flight crew informed the tower of the situation which was quickly becoming obvious. Flight attendants quickly evacuated those passengers who had survived the impact. Fire, ambulance and airport operations arrived on the scene to extinguish the fire, remove the remaining passngers, and to triage and treat the victims. By eleven am everyone had been removed from the scene and all the participants, including most of the dead ones, were enjoying complimentary doughnuts and sandwiches--because the whole thing was an exercise staged to test the readiness of airport and emergency personnel.

The so-called Boeing 737 was actually a smaller airplane, long out of service and with the engines and seat cushions removed. The eagle existed only in imagination. The exercise started with the airplane parked on one of the runways, closed for the purpose of the exercise. The smoke inside was from a smoke machine at the back, run by a guy crouched behind it in the back galley. The smoke outside was from strategically placed smoke bombs around the chocked wheels. "Fire" was indicated by red and yellow streamers. The flight crew and flight attendants were real, from a locally based airline, but a different one than had provided the disused aircraft. The firetrucks, ambulanes and emergency personnel were real, and the passengers were volunteers, carefully briefed, made up, and doused in fake blood. The only passengers who were denied doughnuts were mannequins, posing as dismembered passengers, and they were cleaned up and returned to their boxes before noon.

The smoke machine quickly dropped visibility inside the aircraft to less than arms length. The flight attendants used well-rehearsed shouted commands to urge the passengers out of their seats and out the exits, but the screams (interspersed with giggles) of the 'frightened' and 'injured' passengers made the commands hard to hear. The scenario provided a sobering insight into the conditions that would exit during a true emergency evacuation. Coughing, choking and staggering the passengers emerged onto the tarmac. One wandered off the runway and 'died' in the grass beside it before emergency responders located him. Others wandered confused and interfered with the firefighters. Paramedics moved the passengers away from the aircraft and into green, yellow and red triage areas, according to their injuries and symptoms. The tarmac was swarming with VIPs and observers in orange vests, and before long the Transportation Safety Board, and even a coroner showed up, to begin the analysis.

All the while, real airport operations continued on the remaining runways. A NOTAM had been issued informing crews that the firetrucks, police cars, ambulances, disabled aircraft and sprawled bodies were an exercise only, and they, I hope, found a reassuring way to convey this information to their passengers. I fear there is no good way to tell a planeload of pax that they are going to see an airplane crash scene out the right window as they land. The sooner you tell them, the longer they have to think about the fact that simulations occur because the real thing might happen. Some of them are going to mishear and think there is an emergency affecting their own aircraft, and some are not going to hear, and then think that what they are seeing is real.

An interesting detail: the popular Livestrong rubber bracelets introduced confusion into the triage process, as they were similar to the ribbons emergency personnel used to classify the injured into categories that determined the urgency of their medical treatment. I think if I had time, I would brief my passengers to remove any coloured wristbands, along with their glasses and other sharp objects, in preparation for an emergency landing. And if you want to get helicopter transport to hospital, keep a red wristband handy for such an occasion. Avoid wearing a black one.

All airports have periodic exercises to test readiness and response. They've had emergency simulations at my local airport, but nothing so elaborate, since nothing as large as a B737 operates into here, and operations aren't as complex. They'll dump a scrapped fuselage on a disused taxiway and call the fire department to come out, testing the system of calling them, communicating with them, and ensuring the guy whose job it is to open the gates does so. We still get to watch the firetrucks, but not to the level of excitement and detail that my friends saw in Operation Eagle.

2 comments:

aasmodeus said...

Wow. Awesome. It's weird, but I got emotional just reading about that, even after you said it was a drill. Just thinking of the people who go through this in real life...

Lord Hutton said...

From what I heard from someone who was in London recently, the drilled response to the bombs, from everyone from police to bus drivers, was superb. Nothing like a good bit of planning, even if it seems pointless at the time.
*Thinks about wearing of Make Poverty History wristband next time on an aeroplane.