DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- On a brisk morning, Engineering Assistants from the 436th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering flight were recalled to their duty section on Dec. 18, 2018.
With the news of a simulated aircraft accident, the EAs rapidly deployed with surveying equipment and supplies in tow to a location 15 miles south of the base, near Killens Pond State Park.
Integral to aircraft mishap investigations, EAs map out aircraft debris fields using digital cameras and GPS-enhanced surveying equipment to assist aircraft investigation board members with analyzing the incident.
EAs must be capable of deploying at a moment’s notice as a member of an aircraft mishap survey team if an incident was to happen in the Delmarva Peninsula.
“Over the 17 years I have been in the military, I have been a part of eight real-world mishaps of all shapes and sizes, ranging from fighter, bomber and cargo aircraft,” said Master Sgt. Jason McNabb, 436th CES engineering flight superintendent. “I’ve had clear crash sites and heavily vegetated areas and had an unfortunate experience of having to work with human remains. All in all, I learned a lot from those experiences, and I am more than happy to teach the next generation of EAs.”
Prior to the arrival of the aircraft mishap survey team, Simon Lowe, 436th CES engineering technician, and James Hoff, 436th CES execution support section chief, placed and flagged condemned aircraft parts and aircrew flight gear in a small parcel of land, with permission from Delaware State Parks.
“Due to the size of the area, we built a scenario using a smaller aircraft: a T-38, to be exact. Because larger aircraft may have a larger debris field, and we had some limitations,” said McNabb. “Regardless of the type of aircraft used in the exercise, the methods and procedures used are the same.”
The engineering flight is required to conduct aircraft mishap survey training every three years but aims to make it an annual training requirement because of aircraft assigned at Dover AFB.
“These guys can survey with their eyes closed and are a great team with great chemistry between them,” said McNabb. “What makes aircraft mishap survey training important is the process, because these events are so infrequent, it’s easy to forget. Being recalled and forced to do a last-second inventory and function check of equipment within a short window of time makes this training relevant. If we can’t do those simple things, we can delay the process on sight.”
For some EAs, this training exercise allowed them to perform various duties and roles as aircraft mishap survey team members for the first time in their Air Force career.
“As the team lead, to get a team all together and lay out the expectations was one of the challenges we encountered while working hand-in-hand to educate everybody in order to get something out of this training,” said Senior Airman Kolawole Oyekanmi, 436th CES engineering journeyman.
After observing the simulated debris field, team members determined which surveying method they would use for that location and then set up the relevant equipment.
“The EAs were forced to set up a mobile GPS base station in order to survey using sub-centimeter accuracy,” said McNabb. “They also set up a conventional Geodimeter. This exercise forced them to use multiple survey methods and test their understanding of each.”
When surveying, the use of GPS is the preferred method because it is fast and accurate. Using a conventional geodimeter, which captures the distance between two points using light waves, a EA team can use reflectors for areas under tree cover or no access to the horizon from a debris field. Without this equipment, EAs would do manual topography, which is the least preferred method.
“I enjoyed the training; it familiarized me with the basics of what to do during an aircraft mishap survey,” said Airman 1st Class Alishia Lott, 436th CES engineering journeyman. “What I did wrong, I had to go back and do it over again. I was inputting information wrong into the controller and had to go back and do it all over again.”
Survey information collected could include the location of chemicals found in or near the debris field, including streams, ponds, lakes, etc.
“We also need to document the environmental damage that may have been caused, so we can determine how to mitigate, clean up the site and return it to its pre-mishap state,” said McNabb.
After plotting all of the marked debris items, the team packed up their equipment and headed back to Dover AFB to download captured information, process the data and produce a map with photos to each of the items. In a real-world event, this information would be provided to investigation boards in determining the cause of an accident.
Referring to aircraft mishap surveying, McNabb stated, “It’s a very small part of the job, but methods used during a crash survey are something these guys and girls do every single day – and they do it with professionalism and enthusiasm.”