Are air traffic controllers needed in St Augustine?


AIRPORTDRILL_0612_7801At 8:15 a.m. this morning, Oceania Airlines Flight 815, operating as a charter flight, departed Augusta Regional Airport bound for Palm Beach International Airport; tragically, Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St Augustine was as far as the ill-fated flight would travel.

According to information provided to Historic City News by St Johns County Fire Rescue spokesman Jeremy Robshaw at the scene today, approximately forty-minutes into the flight and 20 miles north-northeast of Northeast Florida Regional Airport, the aircraft experienced an explosive decompression of unknown origin. The aircraft Captain makes the decision to make an emergency landing in St Augustine.

The radio call went out, “EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY! Alert 2!” Because the Federal Aviation Administration averted President Obama’s mandatory sequestration plan, the manned radio control tower at the local airport was able to receive and respond to the emergency call.

The Air Traffic Control Tower issued the Alert 2 condition at 8:56 a.m. with the following additional emergency information: “The aircraft is a CRJ-50. There are 32 souls on board traveling with 1,500 pounds of fuel. The nature of the emergency is cabin decompression. Alert frequency is 127.625 — their estimated time of arrival is 8 minutes.”

So started this morning’s Triennial Disaster Drill at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St Augustine. The live simulation of an actual aircraft crash landing was authentic right down to the theatrical smoke and firefighters in full turn-out gear.

St Augustine High School teacher Warren McCrary told Historic City News editor Michael Gold that about eight high-school aged students, enrolled in the Aerospace Academy, some who are also part of the Civil Air Patrol program, gave up time from their summer vacations to volunteer and complete internships by being part of this morning’s exercises.

The drill got underway in earnest at about 10:00 a.m. — the temperature was already pushing 90-degrees on the hot, asphalt tarmac. For about an hour prior, volunteers and members of agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, St Johns County Fire Rescue, St Johns County Sheriff’s Office, Northrop Grumman, LifeFlight, and the local airport personnel, were briefed on the scenario and how to perform their assignments.

St Johns County Airport Authority Chairman Carl Youman told reporters that he was pleasantly impressed with the way in which the general aviation activity and touch-and-go landings being conducted by the local flight training school operated as normal — despite all of the simulated emergency fire and rescue efforts going on in their midst.

The scenario provided that there were 32 passengers aboard. There were 10 simulated fatalities which were not removed from the aircraft. 22 volunteers portrayed passengers with cuts, burns or lacerations — walking wounded or with only minor injuries. Three crewmembers were on board. Two pilots, one injured and one fatality, as well as one flight attendant who was uninjured.

The volunteers were instructed not to “break character” during the simulation; however, there was a special, pre-arranged code-word to be used if a real emergency arose, or to stop play. It is a good thing; because, soon after the drill began, an observer outside the fenced airport collapsed from the heat and required actual medical attention.

Sheriff’s Media Relations Officer, Kevin Kelshaw, and Sergeant Catherine Payne, were on the scene as was Lt. Jeremy Robshaw from St Johns County Fire Rescue to keep the media at a safe distance while informed as the scenario played out. Television and radio crews from Jacksonville stations represented the broadcast media.

During the drill, the airport objectives included the maintenance of effective communication between all responding agencies, and to effectively track the timely response of secondary emergency response stations, fire services, law enforcement, medical, and ambulance services.

Ed Wuellner, executive director and airport manager, told Historic City News that tests of the emergency alert system for notification to all airport personnel, fire, law enforcement and other agencies responsible for responding to an airport disaster, went very well.

“It is important to maintain control and organization of the emergency scene, as well as ingress and egress,” Wuellner told reporters. “This gives us a chance to evaluate the Airport Authority for operational effectiveness with respect to all responding agencies, and we met our goals.”

Through use of the Incident Command System, the airport’s ability to establish efficient direction and control was also put to the test. The goal is to work closely together and develop a relationship with all agencies and organizations associated with emergency preparedness and to further improve the “Unified Command” concept.

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