WOENSDRECHT AIR BASE, The Netherlands — Boarding an airplane can be cumbersome. Most cabins are roughly eight feet wide and six feet high, with an aisle barely wide enough to fit a person and a carry-on. Imagine navigating through the cabin in the dark, loaded down with gear. Add an element of thick black smoke and the intense heat of a fire, blazing at more than 2,000 degrees.
Airmen in the 309th Airlift Squadron Fire Department experienced this intensity in order to enhance their capabilities and to better protect the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the commanding officer for NATO's Allied Command Operations.
"This is some of the most intensive training that I've been a part of, and I've been through several different bases," said Staff Sgt. Carols Stewart, a firefighter crew chief who has been in the Air Force for 10 years.
Stewart's unit provides crash fire rescue for the Chievres Airfield in Belgium, which is frequently used by the SACEUR and other distinguished visitors. But this type of training couldn't be conducted in Belgium. Instead, the Airmen traveled to the Netherlands and became the first U.S. military personnel to use one of the world's best firefighting training facilities.
"The facility is better than anything that we know of in Europe," said Maj. Jay Donelson, the 309th Airlift Squadron Support Operations officer.
From the control tower on Royal Netherlands Woensdrecht Air Base, four aircrafts and a structure are visible. With a click of a mouse, Warrant Officer Peter Harts can simultaneously send them up in flames.
According to Harts, the Senior Instructor at the fire training facility, the entire Dutch, Swiss, German and Belgian Air Force Fighter Services all train at this site, and the U.S. has helped coordinate training at the Air Base for members of the Afghan military. The 309th, however, is the first U.S. unit to undergo the training firsthand.
The crew from Chievres Air Base started off on a fixed wing aircraft with an engine fire. After that they incorporated the wheel well fire along with the running ground and engine.
"Then they just kept progressing and making it bigger and really more difficult, more exciting as far as we're concerned," said Tech Sgt. Jedadiah Moss, assistant chief of operations.
Eventually, the crew advanced to extinguishing flames from inside the fuselage while rescuing passengers.
"We have ground fires and engine fires and wheel fires and you never know which one you're going to get. You can get all three at one time, so you have to act accordingly," Stewart added.
Harts, who was instrumental in the build up of the facility traveled to the U.S. to work with contractors as the details were being developed back in 1996. On scene, 13 years later, he proudly wore a white helmet adorned with a U.S. flag, as he explained the importance of the accuracy of each simulator. "You want the canopy to open like a real one," he said when discussing the fighter jet simulator.
"A helicopter fire can't be fully extinguished without pulling a certain switch," he said referring to a step necessary in stopping a fire in a real rotary wing aircraft. "The operator in the tower knows if the firemen have completed that task."
Additionally, the all propane-run facility can mimic several types of fuels, simulating appropriate smoke effects and requiring firefighters to use the extinguish techniques necessary for the selected fuel.
All NATO firefighters are required to train with live fire two times a year, which Moss said is important to ensure units "Stay efficient. Stay current. Stay on top of your game."
In the past, the 309th Airlift Squadron has trained at Ramstein Air Base. However, that location only has one simulator, and the unit could only send teams of two, unlike the six-man crews who trained in the Netherlands.
Plus, the close proximity of Woensdrecht Air Base to Chievres allowed the Airmen to conduct the training without going on temporary duty. "It saved the Air Force about $8,000," said Donelson.
Because the Benelux supports tenant units on Chievres Air Base, Mike Laney, a U.S. Army civilian who speaks English, French and Dutch, was able to work with the Dutch air force and the U.S. Air Force to help coordinate the exercise for the 309th. "This has really been a joint effort," said Laney, the Benelux host nation liaison officer. "We first started working the coordination piece for the training at Woensdrecht last year, April 2008, and finally were able to train February 2009."
"Above and beyond the unique international experience of training with the Dutch air force, the 309th Airlift Squadron firefighters enjoyed the opportunity to train at one of the best fire and rescue training centers in Europe further enhancing their support mission at the Chievres Air Base."
"Anytime that you have the opportunity or a chance to learn how to do something different, it's always good because it's going to help you be more diversified in your job," said Stewart.
And as far as the language barrier, Harts said that's not a problem. "We're all brothers in arms, so in a way, firefighters from all over the world speak their own language. And even if the languages don't match, and you don't understand each other, you still do," he said.
The 309th plans to return to Woensdrecht Air Base for training in August.