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Fire Crew Stands on Alert at LAX's '50-Yard Line' for Potential Disasters

March 09, 1986|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

Just like at any firehouse, when the day's schedule of training drills, inspections and equipment maintenance has been completed and what remains is waiting for the inevitable next call, there's sometimes a card game in the kitchen at Task Force 80 of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

The passion at 80's, as the station is called, is hearts and they have a standing joke about amending their tax returns to reflect their losses, though at a penny a hand, this is nothing more than comic relief. The coffee is always hot, if not always fresh.

Four Fire Engines

There are four fire engines in the apparatus bay at 80's, each of them much larger than the pumpers and hook and ladders that are the staples of the fire service. And on the front of one of these four lime-yellow behemoths is one word no one at an airport wants to see but that says more about the mission at 80's than anything else possibly could.

In foot-high block letters, it reads: "CRASH."

It's a new firehouse--completed last May--with a row of plate glass windows in the kitchen affording an unobstructed view of traffic passing on the roadway outside. Capt. Mike Wigfield looked up from the kitchen table matter-of-factly one day recently as he heard something drive by outside.

"That's one of those 747s that United got from Pan Am," he observed before returning his attention to a newspaper. Outside Station 80, the huge Boeing lumbered past, followed by a DC-10 and a line of smaller jet airliners looking a bit like ducklings following their mother.

The station sits almost exactly at the halfway point between the two major east-west runway complexes at Los Angeles International Airport, a spot officially known as the "50-yard line." From this position, the four trucks and 12 men assigned to the station on each of three rotating 24-hour shifts must be able to get anywhere on the airport grounds in three minutes or less, ready to deal with a disaster of worst-possible-case magnitude.

That incident, the way it is figured now, would be a high-speed collision, on the ground on the airport property or just outside, of two fully loaded 747s, each carrying as many as 500 people and brimming with more than 45,000 gallons of jet fuel.

This, of course, has never happened at LAX. But such an accident has happened, on March 27, 1977, at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, killing 581. And the potential for such disaster exists every day the airport operates. In fact, a review of firehouse log books during 16 hours a reporter and photographer spent at 80's recently indicates that airport close calls are more numerous than many passengers may think and many airlines may want to admit.

Firehouse Keeps Busy

By no means is 80's an idle firehouse. It responds to an average of nearly 1,100 calls a year of which about 300 involve such things as bomb threats (about a quarter of the total of serious incidents), airliners landing with one or more engines shut down (or, on occasion, on fire), and a range of other serious problems, including flaps that don't work, balky landing gear, fuel leaks and hydraulic failures. The rest of its call load is for such things as fuel spills and even motor vehicle fires and crashes on the airport grounds.

Fires in engine compartments and landing gear wells are fairly common. Close calls are comparatively frequent. Within the last few months, 80's has dealt with a TWA 747 landing too fast and nearly running off the end of the runway because one engine had failed, a TWA L-1011 landing with one of its three engines shut down and a fire warning sounding in a second engine and an Air France 747 that took off only to suffer an engine failure so severe the cowling around the motor burst and briefly caught fire before the plane made a safe emergency landing.

Then there was the AirCal flight coming in from Ontario with hydraulic system problems. It landed on the south complex, where the runways are 12,000 feet long, but if the landing had had to occur on the shorter north complex, the plane could easily have gone off the end of the runway. "Often, the factors that make the difference between a safe landing and no incident and a real catastrophe are so subtle," noted Capt. Bill King, who was sharing that day's command of the task force with Wigfield.

No Foam on Runways

Dashing one stereotype about airport firefighting, Wigfield noted that spreading foam on runways has not been done at LAX in 10 years because U.S. Navy fire suppression researchers concluded that crashing airplanes often bounce unpredictably out of the foam and that a foamed runway doesn't prevent fire in a crash, anyway.

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