Towering orange flames 100 feet tall. A billowing plume of thick black smoke. An aircraft engulfed in a blaze.
And it’s happening along Interstate 75 toward southern Punta Gorda, not far from the highway.
Don’t panic and don’t dial 911. It’s not a real emergency. In fact, this scene hasn’t even occurred yet.
But later this year, it will — and it will repeat itself with increasing frequency.
What you’ll be witnessing is aircraft firefighting training using a state-of-the-art simulator.
Newly installed at the Charlotte County Fire & EMS administration, fleet maintenance and training facility on Airport Road (behind the Charlotte County Jail and adjacent to the Cheney Brothers warehouse), this simulator is only the second one of its kind in the United States.
Aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF) is the specialty dedicated to protecting aviation interests, including passengers, pilots, crew or airport personnel, airport equipment and structures, and aircraft themselves. Charlotte County’s new aircraft fire simulator installation is the realized vision of Battalion Chief Larry Lippel, a 24-year veteran of Charlotte County Fire & EMS. Mr. Lippel previously spent 10 years as a firefighter in Canton, Ohio, bringing his total years of experience to 34. He now oversees nine of the county’s 16 fire stations, including the one at Punta Gorda Airport.
He first introduced the idea of building an aircraft fire simulator back in 2016, around the same time he lobbied the state of Florida to recognize ARFF as a certified discipline within firefighting. Certification meant that ARFF-specific training, which is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, would now count toward firefighters’ Continuing Education Units in the state of Florida. Other specialties include Marine Ops, Haz-Mat, and Confined Spaces, but not all are certified disciplines according to the state. (Ironically, Florida doesn’t have a marine firefighting certification — despite being nearly surrounded by water.)
Mr. Lippel’s efforts have not only benefited the civil servants in Charlotte County’s Fire & EMS, but also those in departments statewide.
“We put this in here first and foremost for Southwest Florida. (We asked) What can we do to help firefighters and first responders at the airports become better trained?” Mr. Lippel said. “We proposed an idea and, as a county, they picked it up and they wanted to know how it could be used.”
The wide-reaching demand for ARFF training infrastructure is due to many factors, not the least of which is the requirement by the FAA that firefighters at all airports with commercial traffic train and recertify their skills annually .
Consider the high cost to build, operate, and maintain such facilities, and you get an inkling of why there are just a few in the entire state of Florida. Details of the project on Charlotte County’s website put the total cost at $9,393,610.
According to Mr. Lippel, the military helps accommodate some of the demand as they are able, but that capacity varies according to their own training responsibilities and deployments. Indeed, there are ARFF simulators at both Homestead Air Reserve Base (near Miami) and MacDill Air Force Base (in Tampa), but the nearest ARFF training installation at a civilian facility is located at Fire Academy of the South, a part of Florida State College at Jacksonville. That’s not exactly around the corner.
The going rate for ARFF training is about $500 per person, plus travel expenses, plus overnight lodging, plus per-diems, plus paying each firefighter from the moment they leave home until the moment they return. It adds up quickly, but the county is looking far beyond saving money on training its own firefighters.
“The great thing about it is it’s a regional, state, national asset,” Mr. Lippel said. “I mean, it is really not confined to anyone. It’s not just Charlotte County, which is the best part about it.”
So the county hopes to attract the training business of departments all over the state — and even the entire southeastern United States.
There are several reasons they could do just that.
A simulator like no other
Charlotte County’s ARFF simulator is the most technically advanced training installation in the United States. Only Denver has one like it, designed by an aptly named U.K.-based company called Simulation, a brand owned by parent company Alpine Metal Tech, an Austrian company with U.S. headquarters in Imperial, Pennsylvania. The entire design, construction and operational team here flew to Denver to see it in action. They learned what they wanted to incorporate, what they wanted to change, what they wanted to do better and what simply wouldn’t work in Florida.
“That really helped us a lot, that we could put our eyes on the completed project,” said Caryn Huff-Sufferling, project executive with construction contractor Wharton-Smith, “because, obviously, … you don’t build one of these every day. And we want to make sure we get it right the first time.”
The fuselage of the mock-up aircraft is made from COR-TEN weathering steel, sourced from and fabricated in Pennsylvania. According to the company’s website, the weathering steel “resists the corrosive effects of rain, snow, ice, fog, and other meteorological conditions by forming a coating of dark brown oxidation over the metal, which inhibits deeper penetration and negates the need for painting and costly rust-prevention maintenance over the years. In simple terms the steel is allowed to rust and that rust forms a protective coating that slows the rate of future corrosion.”
The faux engines, control boxes and operating systems were imported from the U.K. Lots of coordination was required to make sure everything matched up. Long before the simulator itself was lifted onto its stanchions by crane in April of this year, an intricate web of piping and conduit was painstakingly mapped and installed as deep as 10 feet under the 3-acre site. Liquid propane gas, vapor propane gas, water, nitrogen, electrical lines and data ports are all plumbed under the concrete.
“Before we put anything in the ground, we modeled the whole thing. It looked like spaghetti on the screen, honestly,” Mrs. Huff-Sufferling said. “All the conduit has to run to the right points to make the simulator operate correctly. There was a lot of planning on the front end before the plane arrived and was set in place.”
Mike Nuñez, Wharton-Smith’s project manager for the ARFF installation, agreed.
“It’s not like a jet comes in a box,” he said with a laugh. “I mean, you gotta make sure that every pipe is coming up within a certain tolerance and every single box. Because we didn’t have these boxes here, all we had was the concrete. So we had to make sure that all the pipes were in the right spot, because once you pour concrete, there’s no going back.”
According to Mr. Nuñez, the concrete under the plane itself is 2 feet thick, whereas it is 7 inches thick on the rest of the pad.
As for the simulators themselves, both Denver’s and Charlotte County’s trainers are amalgamations, a Frankenstein’s monster of narrow-bodied commercial passenger aircraft.
Simulation works with each client to customize the features and complexity of the training fixtures. The reason for this is it gives firefighters a look at the critical components of aircraft types they are most likely to encounter in the field. And while Simulation builds mock-ups of everything from tiny commercial aviation planes to helicopters, jumbo jets to detailed replicas of military aircraft, the two most popular aircraft operated by airlines are the Airbus A320 family, favored by Allegiant, and the Boeing 737 family.
Charlotte’s ARFF simulator looks like a black airplane with a blue tail and wings that are too small to fly. Under the larger of the two wings hang two faux engines, one from an A320 and the other from a 737. On the opposite side of the plane, a short stub of a wing houses the turboprop style engine of a Q400, a common commuter aircraft, and there is a tail-mounted turbofan engine similar to that found on any number of regional jets.
As with the engines, one of the main landing gears is designed like the A320 and the other like the 737. This allows firefighters to practice putting out brake and tire fires. There are doors on either side of the fuselage made with true-to-life mechanisms that operate like those of the A320 and 737. The cargo doors, battery disconnect, auxiliary power unit — everything is as real as possible to allow firefighters to build muscle memory in practice that will be activated in a real-life scenario.
The realism continues inside the cabin, where two different seating configurations are used to simulate the A320 and 737, complete with exit doors over the wing, overhead bins, bathrooms, galleys and the cockpit.
The entire installation works like the world’s fanciest gas grill.
The design of the site allows firefighters to drive their trucks all the way around the plane to best position them for fighting the fire.
Charlotte’s new installation also features five in-ground burn pits to simulate fuel spill fires. These have from two to five zones of propane burners covered by rock and giant metal grates. The fuel tanks in the aircraft are housed in the wings. A crash or hard landing could rupture the tanks resulting in a spill fire, which is what the ground pits are meant to simulate. Every nozzle on the installation can be turned on and off separately, so firefighters learn to properly “sweep” the fire from one side to the other to put it out.
“If they don’t sweep it properly,” Mr. Lippel said, “we’re not going to turn that section off and it’s not going to go out.”
“The main purpose of those aircraft trucks is to protect the egress,” he added. “You’re not getting in that door when those 180 people come out, they’re gonna push the fire away from the exit doors as best they can, get as many people out.”
“The goal is to be able to give a fire simulation for firefighters that takes away that whole sense of security (of knowing it isn’t real),” Mr. Nuñez explained. “There is a safety net. There’s a lot of redundancy in this to keep people safe, but it allows them to train in a real-world experience so they can do spill fires, they can do engine fires, you can do a cabin fire. There’s a spot that’s got a rolling fire. You can do a galley fire. They have smoke machines that have nitrogen mixes in them so that the smoke doesn’t dissipate when you spray with water, because, otherwise, well, the simulation is over once you start spraying it.”
The realism of using an ARFF simulator is a game-changer for firefighters who don’t have access to one.
Leaving a legacy
Without a simulator, Mr. Lippel explained, firefighters typically will practice using 55-gallon drums or even traffic cones. Having a life-sized prop ups the ante on training in every respect.
“They can come in here and advance their hose lines,” he said. “They can ladder these planes and (experience) the difficulty getting in them, the narrow space to get people out.”
The other reason Charlotte County’s new facility will be popular with other departments is because it sits on county property. Most ARFF simulators, even those not on military bases, sit on airport property, which is regulated by the FAA. Just getting onto airport property requires either a security clearance or going through a security screening and being escorted while on the property. Having the simulator on county property means visiting departments — and Charlotte’s own firefighters — are free to use the facility at any time and at a moment’s notice.
The forward thinking and support of the county is not lost on Mr. Lippel.
“It’s a big, big achievement for Charlotte County. Every county has a structural building,” Mr. Lippel said, indicating the five-story fire training tower, then added as he nodded toward the ARFF simulator, “but nobody has that. We’re really lucky here, what we have. Fire administration, county administration, county commissioners, other departments who work together, everybody working towards one goal.”
All necessary certificates for the project have been issued. Initial training of all the staff required to operate the simulator is complete. The project is now in the turnover and closeout phase, meaning that — any day now — the keys will be handed to the county. The simulator will be in use by the end of the year, and an international conference of Chiefs in Leadership for Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting is already scheduled for 2023.
With five years left before his retirement, Mr. Lippel views the ARFF simulator as a part of his personal legacy.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to have this opportunity to end my career,” he said. “When I leave, I leave. This is something that I helped get, that when I leave it’s gonna be here. But it’s so exciting to have it in before I retire.” ¦