Kent's fiery corner
Tom McGhee visits the Fire Services Central Training Establishment at Manston in Kent.
Situated at Manston in Kent opposite the Spitfire Memorial and the History Museum, the mouthful of an acronym that is the FSCTE is where the Royal Air Force trains its fire-fighters.
Kent International airport still houses one of Britain's longest runways, and in its previous RAF Manston guise as a Master Diversion Airfield was often put to good use as stricken aircraft would divert in to its foam covered runways during the 1950s and 1960s. Today though, it is more likely to be host to visiting helicopters and fixed wing aircraft en-route to and from Europe requiring refuelling.The last RAF aircraft to operate here were the 22 Squadron Sea King HAR3s which provided Air Sea Rescue duties around the South-East coastline - an example of the unit's earlier Wessex is currently being restored in the nearby History Museum to represent this era.
So, back to the Training School, and following basic recruit training, future RAF fire-fighters undertake an exhaustive course to prepare them for all manner of potential incidents. As well as the many types of aircraft related fires and escape procedures trained for, domestic incidents are practised in the purpose built dwellings on site. These have taken on more significance recently as the armed forces have been drafted in to cover for the regular fire services during their industrial action. Many aged Green Goddess fire engines are kept here ready for use.
A number of aircraft are used by the school to train the students in the specific techniques associated in dealing with aircraft incidents. For crew escape procedure training, a Buccaneer and Phantom are still in use. These allow a fairly realistic exercise to be attempted, using human sized body 'sandbags' to simulate incapacitated aircrew. These have to be extricated from the ejection seat and cockpit, before being lowered to the ground - hopefully real aircrew would be treated with slightly more care than these 'sandbag' bodies! It is hoped that more modern airframes could become available soon to provide a slightly more representative training scenario as the ejection seats fitted in the Phantom and Buccaneer are not as up-to-date as the current Martin Baker offerings.
A number of fire simulators are in use here; these are made of heavy steel so are much more suitable for repeated burning than lightweight aluminium airframes. Some of the smaller simulators are useful for under wing and undercarriage scenarios to teach the fire-fighters how to manoeuvre their bulky equipment in awkward and confined locations. The main simulator however, is similar to the ones seen at many airports, and allows exercises to be tackled in scenarios as diverse as passenger compartments, wing engines, rotor heads, and tail mounted engines.
But, on to real aircraft, and it is essential that a variety of different types be used to enable the trainees to experience all possible situations. From single-seat fast jets like Harriers, through rotary wing helicopters like Gazelles, and up to passenger carrying transport aircraft like Dominies, most different scenarios can be practised in the fire pit.
A typical training scenario involves a couple of aircraft colliding and crashing just inside the airfield boundary. The Canberra has a smoke canister released to add to the realism, and one fire crew has to contain the incident and extract the crews. The Phantom has fuel buckets ignited nearby to add even more realism to the incident, and as the tell tale black plumes of burning AVTUR fills the sky a second crew has to extinguish the fire and rescue the crew as rapidly as possible.
These exercises prove the dedication and efficiency of the RAF's fire-fighting crews, and many a military crew as well as civilian household have had to be thankful for the skills picked up at this establishment. Also on site is a Fire Museum which has a superb collection of vehicles, equipment and memorabilia from around the world. This museum is run by volunteers and is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.