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Techniques for Responding to a Downed Aircraft

Techniques for Responding to a Downed Aircraft

David Pease, Carolina Fire/Rescue/EMS Journal

We in the Fire, Rescue and EMS service are typically “A” type of personality and enjoy the adrenalin rush we get from the calls we respond to. That is not a bad thing since it takes this type of person to do the job we do. How many times have you heard someone tell you that they are glad that you do this kind of work, because they sure couldn’t do it? It makes you feel good inside knowing that people appreciate the job you do.

I think one of the most dreadful calls an emergency provider can receive is of an “aircraft down.” All types of things start going through our head. Is this a large jet with many passengers onboard, is it a medium size aircraft with several dozen flying on it, or a small plane with only a few occupying the seats? Did the plane go down in a cleared area where it will be easy to get to, or in a wooded section that could take a while to access? Will there be survivors or will there be only fatalities? Will the crash be confined to a fairly small area or will it be spread over a vast section of land. These are only a few of the many questions that will be going through your head. It was definitely some of the questions that were going through our heads on May 3rd of this year.

At approximately 3pm a privately owned single engine Mooney M20M was approaching the Raleigh Durham International Airport from Columbia, S.C. There were two souls onboard, the pilot and his wife. The pilot was possibly having problems and tried two attempts to land, requesting help because he was not familiar with the airport. The tower contacted the pilot and offered to divert him to the Greensboro Airport. The pilot advised the tower he needed to land at RDU. He aborted each attempt to land and on the third attempt clipped a tree in an apartment complex. This appeared to have taken off at least one of the wings and the aircraft nosed into the ground beside the lake, flipping up over a tree and into the water. There were several witnesses in the apartments and one even went into the water to try and rescue the occupants. With the velocity and speed of the aircraft being in the range of 120 to 140 knots, one can only imagine what the plane and occupants were exposed to.

The Cary Fire department and police department were dispatched to the scene minutes after the crash. My Technical Captain, Joe Werner was teaching a Rescue Technician class for the neighboring Apex Fire Department. They received a call for assistance and responded with several divers. Joe contacted me and asked if I was aware a plane had gone down in Cary. Of course, I was unaware of the crash and advised him so. Within a few minutes the 911 center reached me on my cell phone and advised that Cary Fire was requesting our divers as well. They gave me some general information and then a contact number of one of the Chiefs that was on the scene. The Chief gave the basic synopsis of what happened and the call went out for our divers. Then all the thoughts started going through my head and you quickly realize this is going to be a body recovery, and not a pleasant one.

Our Team arrived about an hour later with my Water/Dive Captain and several of our divers. The Apex divers had already located a large section of the fuselage and part of one of the victims. The Cary Fire department had command established and it was time to consider what the game plan was going to be. It was pretty obvious that this was going to be a body recovery and it was spread over a relatively large area. It was also apparent that the aircraft was also spread over a large area. The Cary Fire Department was in contact with the officials at RDU and tried to ascertain the flight information as to how many souls were onboard. The divers had located several articles of clothing that belonged to a child. The flight records also do not require that children be logged as passengers. So one of our first dilemmas was trying to determine just how many folks we were looking for, and the airport personnel were not being very helpful.

Our consensus was to try and determine just what we were looking for, before we jumped in to things too hastily. The lake was only 4 to 6 feet deep with a dam on the opposite side. We discussed draining the pond, but then decided to hold on that idea for awhile. There was a storm front also moving in our direction so it was decided to hold divers until this cleared. The absolute safety of the divers and on-site personnel was our top priority. Wake County Emergency Management was also on scene at this time and was already working on the logistics. Barry with Barry’s Café, a local eating establishment arrived that evening with food for all the crews and responders. It was decided at this point to wait until morning, call in additional divers, and start a full scale recovery operation at 9am. The FAA and recovery team was also due on site Tuesday morning.

For the next days recovery operation we called for the assistance of the Harnett County Dive Team and the Youngsville Dive Team as well as our own divers and the Apex Fire Department divers. Bo Medlin, our team’s Water Operations/Dive Captain took the role of Operations Officer. A staging area was set up on the side of the lake nearest the impact location and the gear was all set out. The Cary Fire Department maintained command and handled the public relation releases to the news. The diver’s recovery work had to be coordinated with the City/County Bureau of Investigation and the FAA. The divers were set up in three teams and started working out from the side of the lake. FAA recovery personnel were also working the lake. The Harnett County dive team brought in a metal detector and an underwater camera as well. The camera proved of little use, due to mud and silt. Most of the aircraft was located by feel. There was also a cadaver dog brought in, but was of little use, as the entire lake was pretty well contaminated with body tissue and parts. There were areas set up for the plane debris and an area set up for body part recovery.

We had finally gotten the word that there were two souls aboard the single engine Mooney. Now, the gruesome task of recovering as much of the bodies as possible was about to begin. Apex Fire department kept a boat in the water to help with transporting plane and body parts. We had decided to go ahead with draining the lake, at least dropping the water level by a couple of feet. The Town of Cary Public Works and the apartment complex maintenance personnel used two large gas powered pumps to assist in lowering the water level.

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A pretty large section of the cabin was already marked from the day before and part of one of the victims was also located near that wreckage. The divers continued to bring in aircraft pieces and small body parts and human tissue throughout the morning. Again, Barry’s Café brought out food for everyone. About mid afternoon the lower section of the other victim was located across the lake. The engine was also located about 50ft from the main fuselage. As the day continued, more of the aircraft and body pieces were recovered. At around 6pm we terminated the days’ operations. Most of the aircraft had been recovered as well as bodies. The FAA recovery team loaded the parts on a trailer and prepared to transport them back to Georgia. It was decided to return the next day with divers and continue to search for some still missing body parts.

On Wednesday divers from our team and Harnett County’s team returned for another day of recovery operations. They spent about 4 to 5 more hours doing recovery work and did locate another section of the wing, which would have to be sent to the FAA in Georgia. After completing the recovery operations that day, the call was officially terminated.

Having been in rescue work for 29 years, I have had the opportunity to participate on calls where there were multiple agencies involved. I have found to my despair, that, at times, response agencies get into power struggles that put the operations at risk or at least well below optimum. There is no room for politics in emergency response. “But that will be another article.” I must say that as bad as this call was, the agencies involved did an excellent job of coming together and working together to execute a superb recovery operation. My thanks go out to the following agencies that participated in this operation.

Apex Fire Department Cary Fire Department Cary Police Department Cary City Public Works Cary EMS City County Bureau of Investigation Federal Aviation Administration Harnett County Dive Team North Carolina Highway Patrol The Reds Team Wake County Emergency Management Wake County Fire Marshall’s Office WC-7 Youngsville Dive Team

David has over 27 years experience in the EMS and Rescue field. He is a NC certified ERT Instructor, confined space specialist Instructor, trench rescue specialist Instructor, Rope specialist Instructor, former NC Paramedic and Paramedic Instructor, NC Certified Law Enforcement Instructor, CPR Coordinator and Instructor for Wake Technical Community College, certified diver, teaches with over 7 community colleges, and is Chief of the Reds Team, a technical rescue operations team providing response and training to other agencies and industry. David also writes for Advanced Rescue Technologies magazine. David can be emailed at or visit their website at