At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, firefighters frequently train on what may be the Rolls-Royce of fire props. Unlike the stationary, bare-steel monstrosities set ablaze in pits across the country, Sea-Tac’s 85-foot-long, towable mockup with a 67-foot wingspan is so convincing that flight crews often confuse it for a real aircraft.
According to department lore, the airport’s air traffic controllers will occasionally tell inquisitive visitors that the strange airplane they see parked with its wings folded is a Navy personnel transport. (Because aircraft parking spaces are limited at the airport, the mockup’s wings fold to help it fit into tight parking spaces, and to facilitate towing.)
The mockup’s story began in the mid-1990s, when construction of a new runway took away the fire department’s live-fire training site. For several years, firefighters made do by practicing on traffic cones laid out in the shape of an aircraft. But without an actual object to aim at, nobody could agree on how high, for example, a wing would be and where the hoses and firefighting vehicle turrets should be aimed. In the meantime, the Port of Seattle, which owns the airport, banned live-fire training on airport grounds to prevent environmental damage. Instead, the airport fire department commissioned a $700,000 smoke-only training mockup. Sea-Tac training chief Rick Kruckenberg led the acquisition project. “It addresses all of the job performance requirements of an airport firefighter,” he says, noting that his department runs 18 different drills on the mockup.
Delivered in 2006, the faux airplane is rich in external details: Turbofan engines (they don’t work but have inset fan blades), navigation lights, an auxiliary power unit with exhaust. The department trains with the mockup three times a month to keep skills sharp for the annual live-fire exercise at the Washington State Fire Training Academy. Kruckenberg is able to flood the mockup’s cabin with opaque gray smoke, a challenge to firefighters as they search for dummies representing trapped passengers.
The interior of the mockup is less realistic than the exterior. It has a single row of overhead lights, and started out with two rows of bench seats. To make the training experience more realistic, Kruckenberg has solicited items to make the interior more like the inside of an airliner. Alaska Airlines has donated several rows of passenger seats, for example, as well as two pilots’ seats and evacuation slides.
A final detail signals the direction in which airport firefighting training is headed: The mockup is painted green.
Sam Goldberg is a former Air & Space associate editor.