My day as a firefighter at Stansted Airport trying to rescue a body on a smoke-filled plane

PUBLISHED: 16:26 16 August 2018 | UPDATED: 16:26 16 August 2018

RTC training. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

RTC training. Picture: CONTRIBUTED


I was first to enter the aircraft filled with synthetic smoke. I had two firefighters with me but I was instructed to lead the way and communicate what was going on.

Firefighter for the day at Stansted Airport. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDFirefighter for the day at Stansted Airport. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

You lose complete sense of your surroundings and nobody tells you how hot it’s going to be. Every part of your skin is covered. It is pitch black inside and a torch doesn’t help.

Firefighters at Stansted Airport spend their time training for a major incident that they hope never happens and I got an insight into what an average day with the Blue Watch looks like.

One of the most unnerving parts is hearing your breathing through the apparatus – you know when you’re starting to panic from your breathing. You sound like Darth Vader.

At one point, I couldn’t hear, feel or see the firefighters who were on board with me. Our aim was to find the dummy casualty which had been placed among a maze of metal panels.

The aircraft simulator which was filled with smoke for a training exercise. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDThe aircraft simulator which was filled with smoke for a training exercise. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

I lasted nearly 10 minutes inside the smoke before I called it off.

I was told even this was a valiant effort, trainees often freak out in training exercises like these. Some people take days to get used to the breathing apparatus.

Your oxygen levels are monitored to make sure you have enough left to get out. A record is kept. If you don’t move for a certain amount of time, the alarm on your oxygen supply sounds.

Mine kept going off because if you stand still for too long, it beeps.

On the fire service's training ground at Stansted Airport. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDOn the fire service's training ground at Stansted Airport. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

While the others entered the smoke to try and find the casualty, I checked out the range of cars the firefighters receive for their road accident training.

They are brand new with immaculate tyres and interiors – the cars are picked up again once the crew have smashed them up and, other than the windows, doors and roof, the firefighters are not allowed to touch the rest of the car.

I got to smash a car window using a gadget which involves only a tiny pin – something I will probably never do again and it shocked me to see how easy it is to break into a car.

Before entering the plane, I had tried my hand at lifting a dummy weighing about 50 kilograms but in the event, I hadn’t been able to save the dummy’s life.

Getting ready to practice with breathing apparatus. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDGetting ready to practice with breathing apparatus. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

It’s all about preparation at the fire station. Some of the firefighters have been training for years without attending a major incident and most days are spent responding to first aid calls and fire alarms within the airport.

I was assigned to a fire engine for the shift, which meant I had to be prepared to jump on board if we were called out.

First job of the day was to check the vehicle to make sure all the equipment was in the right place and working correctly.

The crew have free range on the taxiway so we tested the brakes by having a cruise among the planes ferrying down the taxiway.

The aircraft was filled with smoke for a training exercise. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDThe aircraft was filled with smoke for a training exercise. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

They told me this is no time to mess around – if you get in the way of an aircraft and cause it to stop in its tracks or move to avoid you, that’s your job gone.

At night, it requires more concentration as the lights and movements of the aircraft can be disorientating.

Beforehand, I was asked to radio air traffic control to let them know that we were on the taxiway. They needed to be messaged again upon return to the station.

Back at the station, two engines were called out to a fire alarm going off in one of the airport buildings – a standard incident for the crew, they tell me.

Chatting to the firefighter who had come on board the smoke-filled plane with me, he said he had just passed ‘the knowledge’ and was a qualified black cab driver on his days off.

Kev joined Stansted Airport when he was 19 and worked in security, before joining the fire service.

Most of the crew have spent decades working in aviation. The station manager, who has been at the airport for 20 years, worked at London City Airport before joining Stansted.

The crew’s role at Stansted Airport is vital - in the event of an emergency, such as the recent bus fire at the terminal, their job is to save lives and keep the airport moving.

The last fatal incident was in 1999 when a Korean Airlines plane crashed after take off, killing all four crew.

I asked the crew why there were no women at the station.

The station manager told me they had done several recruitment drives to get women on board and one woman had made it all the way through the process, but failed at the last fitness test.

It’s true, the job is incredibly physically demanding and I was exhausted by the end of my shift.

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