First responders and pilots

Pilots are bold, confident people for the most part. We train to maintain our cool under pressure, be technologically adept at dealing with the machine entrusted to us, and maintain a state of safety consciousness above all else. Yeah, we’re cool.

Barney Fife was not a pilot. The character portrayed so expertly by Don Knotts was a fumbling, bumbling, ball of nerves and ego who never seemed to get anything right. He was a deputy sheriff who kept the one bullet he was allowed to carry in his shirt pocket, to inhibit the process of loading it into his pistol, which would undoubtedly lead to him hurting somebody – maybe even himself.

The sad truth is neither of those descriptions is an accurate portrayal of most real people. They’re caricatures intended to have an effect. In the first case, the description is intended to impart pride and respect. In the second, humor is the goal.

Truthfully, there are sloppy pilots in the world who probably shouldn’t be flying, and there are law enforcement officers who are cool, competent, and have a real dedication to public safety. Our job as thinking people is to accept each person individually and base our reactions to them and interactions with them on the individual, not on a stereotypical character we’ve preconceived them to be.

As aviation enthusiasts, this matters to us in a special way, because we are often lumped into a big homogeneous pile of humanity as if we all share one personality and mindset. Law enforcement and emergency service workers often suffer the same fate. However the problem for us isn’t that others impose their expectations on us – the problem for us is that we do it to each other.

Like it or not, every pilot and passenger on the airport has a perfectly understandable and realistic expectation that help will arrive quickly should the worst happen. We anticipate the field to be awash in first responders who will swarm our aircraft, extricate us in an emergency, and take care of us until we can get the professional medical help we need.

That’s a reasonable assumption. There are holes in the logic that supports it, however.

Who trains the first responders in how to deal with the airport, the aircraft, the movement of aircraft, and the systems they’ll be encountering when they come upon one after an accident?

What are the odds, do you suppose, that the first emergency worker who shows up to help you knows that turning the airplane’s key to the “off” position will not shut off the electrical system that’s feeding live voltage to wires that may come in contact with raw fuel? Will he or she know that there is a manually operated fuel valve in the cockpit that can shut off the flow from the tanks? How likely is it that the EMT or firefighter who is trying to remove you from a crumpled fuselage knows there is a ballistic parachute system on board, and how it works? Does the emergency crew know whether the fuel cells are in the wings, or the fuselage, so that they can avoid rupturing them as they try to extricate you from the wreckage?

Nobody likes to image what could happen if everything goes wrong one day. But it can, and it does. Our safety, and the safety of our passengers, as well as those on the ground, is dependent on us having a good open line of communication with the emergency workers who may one day come to our rescue.

All of this occurred to me recently as I was reading an e-mail from an aviation enthusiast named Douglas Manuel. To his credit, Douglas independently recognized these scenarios as being problematic, and so he decided to do something. He developed a Powerpoint presentation that he presents to police departments with the assistance of their training officer. By sharing his knowledge of aviation, and aircraft, and traffic patterns, and pilot training he’s doing something constructive and beneficial that has the potential to help save lives in the long run.

Thanks, Douglas!

What I find most impressive about what Douglas is doing is that it’s not hard, it’s not expensive, it doesn’t require the backing of a large organization, and it’s effective. Anyone could do this exact same thing in their own community with minimal effort. Douglas did what so few of us do. But he’s providing a great example of what any one of us could do if we took the initiative.

So I ask you, why don’t we do what Douglas is doing? Why don’t you do it?

Now those are a couple of interesting questions. The answer, when you find it, just might make one heck of a big difference to someone, someday. Who knows, the ultimate recipient of your efforts might even be you.

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to You can reach him at


  1. Andy Greenwood says

    What a good article. I instruct at our Reserve Law Enforcement Academy and local
    fire department. The info was as is well received.

    Andy Greenwood (no kin to Lee)
    Airport Manager  

  2. Art Walker says

    Great topic. As a former EMT/Ambulance Driver, and a current private pilot, I can’t think of anything more valuable than “continuing education” in this area. 
    Douglas Manuel, if you’re willing to forward me you power point presentation, I’ll see to it all my friends working for Los Angeles County Fire Dept. receive a copy. I just know they would greatly appreciate having more “specific knowledge” regarding aircraft systems. 

  3. Jrham says

    As a Volunteer Fire department / First aid member and 30000 hour pilot you are preaching to the choir. Our department is not located near an Airport but ocassily I have been called to assist in this area, ie : 9/11/2001. Very essential, at 71 years of age I’m going to look into this issue locally.

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