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The small fire at the base of the airplane is the first sign of trouble. Moments later, the A380 is engulfed in flames. Over a mile away, anxious passengers look out the terminal window worrying if an aircraft has crashed. Passengers gasp as their plane lands just a half-mile away from the raging inferno. Brakes squeal as the first firetruck arrives on the scene. Less than 60 seconds later, the fire is out and the last bit of thick black smoke is dispersing. The whole time, not a single passenger was in danger.

Today’s fire was just a test, one of many that happen each week at DFW’s Fire Training Research Center (FTRC). The firefighters who practice against these blazes hope that they never to have to face the real situation. But, just in case something does happen, they will be ready thanks to the training they undergo at the DFW FTRC. After another hopefully uneventful year, they’ll be back here to be re-certified.

My view of the active Fire Training Research Center from DFW
My view of the active Fire Training Research Center from DFW’s Terminal D.

Intrigued by the sight of one of these training fires during a recent landing in DFW, I reached out to DFW for more information. DFW and the FTRC generously invited me for a behind-the-scenes tour of the training facility, hosted by Assistant Chief Randal Rhodes.

The Center

The DFW Fire Training Research Center originally opened in 1995. For its first couple of decades, it served as one of the many firefighter training centers at US airports. It wasn’t until a $29 million makeover in 2013 that the center became one of the world’s top centers for airport firefighting training. From state-of-the-art classrooms to unique training aircraft and even structure-based training, the training center is designed to take new firefighters from the basics of airport firefighting all the way through advanced and specialized training.

The Classroom

A lecture classroom at the DFW FTRC.
A lecture classroom at the DFW FTRC.

Much of the training begins in the classroom. In addition to traditional lecture-based classrooms, the fire center has a variety of high-tech in-classroom training tools, from an interactive large touchscreen to smaller hands-on screens.

Interactive classroom in DFW FTRC. At each desk, trainees have their own touchscreen training system.
Interactive classroom in DFW FTRC. At each desk, trainees have their own touchscreen training system.

The interactive training system is designed to let instructors walk firefighters around and through a variety of animated planes. Interactive 3D models of planes are used to train students about the location of flaps, ailerons, slats, landing gear and fuel tanks for various aircraft. Animated airports are used to train students about airport runway signage and markings. Inside virtual aircraft, firefighters can “walk” down airplane aisles and click instructional videos to show how to activate on-board emergency equipment and aircraft doors.

Interactive training board at DFW FTRC.
Interactive training board at DFW FTRC.

To assist in training the many students hailing from other airports, the instructor can retrieve a map of any airport in the world and virtually simulate a fire on the trainees’ home turf. Using these tools, the instructor can train the new firefighters on the proper way to approach any number of situations, regardless of where it occurs at the airport. Since I’d just flown in from Austin, Assistant Chief Rhodes retrieved Austin Bergstrom’s (AUS) map and ran through a situation where a 747 overran and caught fire on runway 35R. As the animated fire grew, he showed how firefighters could choose where to respond to the situation:

The Aircraft

One of only two A380 training modules in the world.
One of only two A380 training modules in the world.

The highlight of the DFW Fire Training Research Center is the giant steel Airbus A380 training aircraft. One of only two A380 trainers in the world — with the other, not surprisingly, in Dubai — this trainer allows firefighters to train on and around a full-height and width Airbus A380.  If the aircraft dimensions don’t look quite right, there are a few differences between this and a full-sized A380. While the aircraft is full scale, the length is shortened by 70 feet and is missing half of each wing, including an engine on each side. Sharp-eyed AvGeeks will also notice that other elements — such as the landing gear — have been simplified.

This trainer aircraft has four outside “fire places” where the trainers can set fires. Inside the simulator, firefighters can train on nine different fire scenarios — including cargo, cockpit, galley and lavatory fires. The trainers can even simulate a flashover, where a burst of flames fills the cabin.

Students can train on a real MD-80.
Students can train on a real MD-80.

American Airlines recently donated a boneyard-bound MD-80 to the center for training purposes. Before turning it over, AA ripped out any parts that it could reuse. So, as Assistant Chief Rhodes explains, the interior looks like the plane has been through a crash — complete with missing and moved seats, exposed wiring and debris. For training exercises, the FTRC doesn’t set the plane on fire but is able to fill the cabin with smoke.

One of the center
One of the center’s 727s trainers.

The FTRC has two Boeing 727 trainers — one arranged as a cargo aircraft and the other as a passenger aircraft.

Trainees have to learn to respond to all sorts of situations, including an aircraft on its side.
Trainees have to learn to respond to all sorts of situations, including an aircraft on its side.

The FTRC also has a small jet for general aviation training situations. Set on its side and slanted up a hill, this aircraft can simulate responding to more drastic incidents.

In addition to these aircraft, the center has its own off-road training center. As there’s no telling where firefighters might have to respond to a crash, the FTRC takes its rigs and trainees through all sorts of conditions. The training can be so intense that sometimes trainees have gotten these powerful eight-wheel drive rigs stuck.

The Rigs

One of DFW
One of DFW’s single-operator fire response trucks.

DFW’s Fire Department and FTRC has a variety of vehicles to use both for training and in case there’s actually an incident at DFW. The backbone of the fleet are strikers like the one pictured above. While it can seat up to three firefighters, these rigs are designed to be driven and operated by just one highly-trained individual.

DFW firefighters can drill into an aircraft to fight fires.
DFW firefighters can drill into an aircraft to fight fires.

For training and actual airport emergencies, DFW has two Oshkosh Snozzle vehicles which feature a piercing nozzle. This tool can drill into an aircraft and deliver fire-extinguishing foam or water to a specific location. While this would likely not be necessary in the passenger cabin of a commercial aircraft, this tool can be invaluable on cargo aircraft. If one container was on fire in the middle of the aircraft, firefighters can deliver water/foam directly above the problem area — instead of sawing into the side of the aircraft with hand tools or unloading the other containers to get to the fire.

Firefighters train on a test piece of aluminum to help preserve their training aircraft.
Firefighters train on a test piece of aluminum to help preserve their training aircraft.

With the large number of firefighters being trained at the facility, most of the training center’s aircraft would be riddled with holes if trainees drilled into the training aircraft. Instead, the center erects a slab of aluminum for trainees to train on.

The Test

Of course, the highlight of my visit was the test fire on the A380. Although there were students scheduled to perform this test during my visit, schedule changes nixed this. However, the FTRC was kind enough to have one of its firefighters run through a mock test. In case you were wondering, in an actual test there would be multiple rigs responding to the blaze.

However, much of what you see is true to the testing: The firefighters train with water, rather than the foam they would use on a real fire. A series of drains captures the water used in the test, and the water is then filtered and reused in future tests. Sensors in the training area determine whether firefighters are applying adequate water for the training situation. Trainers then use this information and their controls to increase, scale back or extinguish the fire — rather than the trainees physically putting out the fire.

The FTRC has to balance its environmental commitment with being able to simulate true aircraft fires. Jet fuel doesn’t burn cleanly — especially in fires — so the center would be releasing substantial pollution each time a test was done. Using propane for testing would be cleaner, but the fire wouldn’t be realistic for training purposes. So, the FTRC uses liquid-hydrocarbon E-III fuel in its pit fires, which “burn[s] 98% cleaner than Jet A or Jet B fuels” while also fully simulating a liquid-based fire.

The Students

The DFW Fire Training Research Center has hosted students from across the globe.
The DFW Fire Training Research Center has hosted students from across the globe.

FTRC students hail from all over the globe. In fact, as one of the top training facilities in the world, the center has trained almost 30,000 students from 44 states and 45 countries. To honor this fact, the center displays flags from each country and state it has hosted both inside and outside the classrooms.

The City of DFW

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is uniquely situated, as it isn’t part of Dallas, Fort Worth or any other city. Yet, the airport’s property is larger than the island of Manhattan. In addition to the airport itself, the property includes commercial office space and warehouses.

DFW
DFW’s property stretches well beyond the terminals and runways.

Between passengers, airport staff, airline crew, hotel guests and staff, office workers and everyone else working on the property, DFW estimates that about 100,000 people are on the airport property at any one time. As the only agency responsible for this area, DFW’s 240 firefighters and paramedics respond to any incident that occurs onsite — and even some that don’t. DFW crews often will respond to incidents in surrounding areas, while continuing to provide life-saving support to the airport.

When it comes to training DFW’s own firefighters, they don’t just train for the exceptionally unlikely chance of an aircraft crash, but also for how to respond to a warehouse fire, car crash or even a hotel fire. The training center is situated to train for this too with its “Structural Fire Trainer & Training Tower.” Not only does the tower help train firefighters with responding to multi-story buildings, but it also can simulate a variety of unique structural fires.

The fire department’s services are required nearly constantly. Assistant Chief Rhodes notes that the center receives between 3,000-4,000 calls for assistance each year. Thankfully, almost all of these are ground-based emergencies; everything from basic first aid to advanced life support from DFW’s paramedics and EMTs. Aircraft-related emergencies are much less common and most of those are “out of abundance of precaution by the flight crew and rarely need any fire fighting operations.”

Bottom Line

Commercial aviation remains astonishingly safe, especially here in the United States. However, first responders need to be prepared for any number of potential situations, from a crash like the one Asiana had in San Francisco to the more common on-board medical situation. The Dallas/Fort Worth Fire Training Research Center stands as the premier airport firefighting training center in the United States and one of the top centers in the world.

Many thanks to DFW’s Media Relations Manager Cynthia Vega for arranging the tour, Assistant Chief Randal Rhodes for hosting the tour and Brian Poulston for participating in the A380 test fire and answering questions. Thank you to the 240 firefighters of DFW as well as airport firefighters from around the world for helping keep aviation so safe.

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