Crash team clears runway

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Emily F. Alley
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The single runway here has specialized teams to keep it running smoothly. In the case of a crash, for example, members of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing crash recovery team are responsible for all U.S. aircraft with in-flight emergencies and emergencies on the airfield.

A challenge for any crash recovery team, said Staff Sgt. Christopher DeWitt, is balancing the urgency of the mission with safety.

Before coming to Afghanistan, Sergeant DeWitt worked for about 10 years as a crew chief and in crash recovery. His experience led him to be a crash-recovery team leader here, where he directs a team of eight and coordinates with the NATO-run base operations center.

The natural focus of BOC officials is to get the runway operational as soon as possible, he added.

Working out of one of the busiest single-runway airfields in the world, Sergeant DeWitt estimated his team handles about four times the number of emergencies here as they do at his home station at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.

While they are accountable for U.S. aircraft, they will also assist others. On a recent tasking, his team recovered a Russian aircraft when its landing gear collapsed on takeoff. The team took fifteen minutes to clear the airfield.

According to Staff Sgt. Nicholas Blucker, who also works in crash recovery, even that could be considered slow.

"We take a step back, look at the safety aspects," Sergeant DeWitt said.

In the five months that Sergeant DeWitt's team has been working out of Kandahar Airfield, they've assisted with three crashes and approximately 100 in-flight emergencies. The most common problem is landing gear malfunction.

In practice, crash recovery for the members of the 451st AEW is limited to on-base. However, they may be tasked to recover aircraft outside the base, if the downed aircraft is salvageable.

When a problem occurs, firemen are the first to respond, followed by representatives from the safety office. A rushed safety inspection may take several hours. Ideally, it would span days. Finally, crash recovery team members are responsible for clearing the aircraft from the ramp.

On the airfield, a handful of crash recovery personnel work with an assisting team of crew chiefs. For a collapsed landing gear, for example, a large crane would lift the aircraft and give the landing gear an opportunity to fall into place. The aircraft could then be towed. If the landing gear still wouldn't work, the aircraft could be loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven off the runway. In some circumstances, the crash recovery team would simply bulldoze the plane from the runway.

The team's mission is to work quickly, safely, and ideally salvage as much of the multi-million dollar aircraft as they can.

"We find the fastest way possible, by any means possible," Sergeant Blucker said.

When the runway is clear, planes can keep flying missions, saving lives and taking people where they need to go.