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P1 First Person: Understanding the risks of downed aircraft rescue

Editor’s Note: There have been two serious aircraft accidents involving large passenger airline aircraft in the span of just a few weeks here in the United States. Fortunately, the number of fatalities has been low, but both events serve as stark reminder that police officers may at any moment be called to participate in rescue efforts at the site of a downed aircraft. In this week’s P1 First Person essay, Jim Waydula offers some thoughts on keeping safe in this unusual environment. In P1 First Person essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other PoliceOne Members, send us an e-mail with your story.

By Jim Waydula
Police1 Member

Considering the sheer number of aircraft flying in U.S. airspace at any given time, it is surprising that a majority of agencies not only do not provide any training on aircraft accidents, but also have no written policies on what to do or how to stay safe. I was fortunate to have been trained by ALPA on aircraft accident investigation, and combined that knowledge with my experience as an LEO and pilot to develop a training course for downed aircraft rescue.

The FAA and NTSB have many regulations specifically targeted to responders dictating what is required to preserve the scene. However, most police academies do not teach this subject.

Generally speaking, these regulations mean you must treat any crash as a homicide at a HAZMAT plant until the NTSB says otherwise. On small planes, you will find fuel and hydraulic fluid of some sort, live magnetos, propeller(s), and whatever the pilot was carrying. In large planes, you also have formaldehyde, compressed gases, pressurized hydraulic lines, 120-volt electric systems, and whatever hazards are in the cargo hold.

Big Airplanes, Big Hazards
Let’s briefly consider the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013.

With modern aircraft like the Boeing 777, manufacturers use a combination of materials for strength and weight savings. The 777 combines metal body and composite tail and control surfaces. These composites are generally a form of carbon fiber. Burned carbon fiber —both smoke and ash —contain micro particles of the fibers. These easily enter the lungs when you breathe in, and then attach themselves to the soft, moist tissue in your lungs, somewhat like asbestos does. As with asbestos, this can create many breathing issues, and possibly cancer in the future.

Being in and around a crash like this may also expose you to other chemical and mechanical hazards. Opening an exterior door, you will find the emergency slide flop out and inflate in about 3-4 seconds. For a plane the size of a 777, this slide will be about 25 feet long and fill with a CO2 charge of 3000psi or more.

Standing there when it inflates can easily break your legs and/or send you flying. The fire bottles for the engines, baggage compartment, and APU generally contain Halon —a form of Freon — or other inert gases that can prevent you from breathing if you’re near them when they discharge. There are other items such as formaldehyde, tritium (radioactive), and the various hazardous items mentioned above.

Look at it this way: most airliners carry seven out of the nine HAZMAT categories you may see on commercial trucks.

If you find yourself without proper gear and entering a scene like the one at SFO earlier this month, consider yourself “exposed” and file a “first report of injury” report with your supervisor. Prior to finding yourself in that situation, do get proper training on what to do with a plane of this size, or even a little prop plane or helo.

Small Planes Have Carbon Fibers Too
Small, private planes may also have carbon fiber parts.

Some police and first responders across the country now have lung issues from responding to crashes where carbon fiber parts have burned.

One officer I had in my class had gone into the aircraft after the investigation was over to retrieve personal items of the passengers. Stirring up the ash, he ended up breathing in a lot of carbon ash. Within a month or so, the officer had started to see a doctor. It took three months for him to piece together what was causing the problem. The officer had to be placed on office duty.

The best prevention is to always wear self-contained breathing apparatus if you are near the burning crash, or working around the crash site after the fire is out. If you do not have the proper gear, stay back. Your firefighters will have the proper gear. Share your knowledge and make sure they are wearing gear. Even a slight breeze after the fire is out can stir up the fibers, so staying upwind is important.

One trick an old FAA Investigator shared with me was – once everything is done – put “Future” floor wax in a spray bottle, and spray down the area. If the officer I mentioned had done this before going to retrieve those items, it might have made a big difference.

Officers should know that 75 percent of airplane crashes happen off airport property. This means the agency responsible for patrolling the jurisdiction where the crash happened will be also responsible for security and safety at that accident scene. This can take several days, and can cause manpower issues if you don’t have a plan in place for such an event happening.

About the Author
Jim Waydula has been fortunate to have worked both in law enforcement and aviation. In addition to being a sworn police officer and POST trainer, Waydula been a captain on the Boeing 727, has flown as copilot and fight engineer, and has been a pilot examiner for private pilots. Waydula has combined this background, along with extensive training in both fields, to develope an aviation accident training course for police and fire personnel. If you would like more information on the full training course on responding to aircraft accidents, contact him via email at

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