Alexandria airport crew prepares for disasters they hope never come

Courtesy of The Town Talk
Story by Jody Belgard

They train for the worst, and pray for the best.

Alexandria International Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) Chief Barry Harper has been in the business for decades. He was on the original crew when the fire department was established at England Airpark in 1996. Between 1996 and 2009, Harper worked fire and rescue for FedEx and as a civilian contractor in Iraq.

“In our business, we are always training for the worst,” Harper said. “I’ve known guys who worked this business for 25 years and retired without ever responding to a crash.”

The July 6 Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash in San Francisco, in which three girls were killed and 168 were injured, would qualify as “the worst.”

Alexandria International Airport receives an average of 150 aircraft a day, ranging from crop dusters to military aircraft to 300-seat passenger planes. A major crash has not occurred at the airport since 2005, when a pilot was killed while attempting to land a single-engine plane.

Air traffic control works closely with ARFF to ensure safety from the ground up. There is constant communication between the control tower and pilots in the air once they are within a five-mile radius of the runway.

“It’s a controlled area,” air traffic control manager Pat Thompson said. “We want to know who’s in the air. If an aircraft is below 25,000 feet and within five miles, we’re talking to aircraft. We’re here to prevent collisions.”

ARFF is there to take care of everything else.

“When there is an emergency, the aircraft will contact us,” Thompson said.

The person manning the control tower then will pick up a red phone — the only red phone in the booth — and dial in the emergency. The phone transmits to both Rapides Parish 911 and the airport’s ARFF team, which will be at the site within three minutes.

It’s not out of the ordinary for ARFF to receive a call, though most times the emergency isn’t anything major.

“The last one we had, a smoke detector went off in the luggage compartment,” Harper said. “It was a faulty detector. It was nothing, but you never know.”

They train for the worst, and pray for the best.

Alexandria International Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) Chief Barry Harper has been in the business for decades. He was on the original crew when the fire department was established at England Airpark in 1996. Between 1996 and 2009, Harper worked fire and rescue for FedEx and as a civilian contractor in Iraq.

“In our business, we are always training for the worst,” Harper said. “I’ve known guys who worked this business for 25 years and retired without ever responding to a crash.”

The July 6 Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash in San Francisco, in which three girls were killed and 168 were injured, would qualify as “the worst.”

Alexandria International Airport receives an average of 150 aircraft a day, ranging from crop dusters to military aircraft to 300-seat passenger planes. A major crash has not occurred at the airport since 2005, when a pilot was killed while attempting to land a single-engine plane.

Air traffic control works closely with ARFF to ensure safety from the ground up. There is constant communication between the control tower and pilots in the air once they are within a five-mile radius of the runway.

“It’s a controlled area,” air traffic control manager Pat Thompson said. “We want to know who’s in the air. If an aircraft is below 25,000 feet and within five miles, we’re talking to aircraft. We’re here to prevent collisions.”

ARFF is there to take care of everything else.

“When there is an emergency, the aircraft will contact us,” Thompson said.

The person manning the control tower then will pick up a red phone — the only red phone in the booth — and dial in the emergency. The phone transmits to both Rapides Parish 911 and the airport’s ARFF team, which will be at the site within three minutes.

It’s not out of the ordinary for ARFF to receive a call, though most times the emergency isn’t anything major.

“The last one we had, a smoke detector went off in the luggage compartment,” Harper said. “It was a faulty detector. It was nothing, but you never know.”