One man died and another had to be rescued and treated for serious injuries in a trainer plane crash north of Clinton, which left fiery wreckage strewn across a large hayfield off Five Bridge Road Tuesday morning, all part of a multi-agency simulated training exercise by the U.S. Army and Sampson County first responders.
The scenario was coordinated by the U.S. Army’s Airborne and Special Operations Test Directorate (ABNSOTD) out of Fort Bragg with assistance by local Sampson emergency responders, including Sampson EMS, Emergency Management officials and various local fire departments. The exercise was just as much about building partnerships between inter-county agencies — military and civilian — as it was about training in the case of a real emergency.
“Us having to respond to an aviation accident is a very real possibility,” said Col. Mark Edmonds, director of the ABNSOTD. “You have to get out and (train for) it.”
On Tuesday morning, a call came in of a lost aircraft. In a matter of moments, a trainer plane is found near the tree line of a large field at 6770 Five Bridge Road. One victim, found at the scene of the gnarled plane wreckage, is immediately pronounced dead from his injuries, while another who was able to parachute just before the plane went down is now caught in a tree. He is dangling about 30 feet up in woods adjacent to a pond, approximately half a mile away from the crash site.
While several fire departments put out the fires at the crash site, many others coordinate the rescue of the parachutist, which requires a path through the woods to be cleared, trees to be cut down and a process devised to safely extract the injured co-pilot from the tree.
It is a very real scenario, with a legitimate response, all part of a elaborate training exercise.
In the case of such a crash, the Civil Air Patrol locates the aircraft, with assistance from local emergency responders, who put out fires and rescue any injured personnel. The U.S. Army Airborne team responds and secures the crash site, while working to facilitate any rescue by local authorities.
That exercise was put into practice Tuesday, after which there was an After Action Review (AAR) to assess how the response and rescue went and identify any ways in which the process can be improved.
“We have an aviation accident response plan and this is a terrific exercise to validate that we have good practices and a good plan,” Edmonds said. “
And exercises like the one Tuesday is not only an effort to put that response plan into practice, modifying it as needed, but is a way to do so while establishing relationships with local agencies such as Sampson County EMS, Civil Air Patrol and the local fire departments — Herring, Clement, Salemburg and Clinton fire departments were all expected to participate, and the local N.C. Forestry Service was also on scene — that U.S. Army Airborne personnel may have to work with should a devastating crash like Tuesday’s simulation actually occur.
“This is their exercise, but they called us and asked if we could facilitate it, and we were glad to,” said Sampson EMS chief Erick Herring. “We don’t think it’s that common to have a parachutist caught in a tree, but we learned that the (Test Directorate) actually does a lot of jumps out of the Clinton airport so it might not be as uncommon as we think.”
However, Herring said the exercise might also be useful in the case of a hunter being in a similar situation.
“This is something we don’t typically do that much of,” said Herring, who noted that local EM officials have focused mainly on response to mass casualty events, such as school shootings, as of late. “This is a good practical exercise and a good application for us, and we’ll be able to apply it not only in the rescue of a parachutist but if a hunter happens to be caught in a tree.”
Such an incident might be the result of a sudden cardiac incident, stroke or any other incident that might incapacitate a hunter, who may find themselves unable to climb back down from a perch where he was awaiting game.
“The possibility of us getting a call of a parachutist caught in a tree is pretty slim, but we have to be prepared for it,” Herring said. “We have to expect and prepare for the unexpected.”
It may be remote, but it is a definite possibility, U.S. Army Airborne personnel said.
“We jump quite a bit out at the Clinton airport and we fly Sampson County airspace,” said Edmonds. “This is a great opportunity to coordinate with local Sampson County agencies. They are all very professional. Working with Erick and the whole team has been fantastic. We’ve learned a lot and I think they’ve learned a lot. It’s been good to see.”
The main mission of Fort Bragg’s Airborne and Special Operations Test Directorate, whose unit consists of about 85 personnel, is to plan, execute and report on assigned five-year test programs and customer tests for Joint Airborne and Special Operations Forces in order to support doctrine development and the material acquisition process.
On order, the ABNSOTD supports developmental testing using test parachutists and conducts airdrop certification of all airborne and airdrop equipment. The unit does such tests with two T-34 aircraft, which are small two-seater, single-engine trainer planes used to fly in close proximity to larger aircraft that are being tested, or from where Airborne personnel are going on jumps to take the latest equipment on trial runs.
They film such tests in order to learn and take others through the process of what works and what needs work.
“We test everything that comes out of the Army,” Edmonds said.
And that comes with its inherent risks, as was exhibited in the simulated massive plane wreckage north of Clinton.
Staff Sgt. Mike English, who coordinated the exercise, touted the team-building, networking and joint learning the training provided.
“A lot of it is about relationship building,” said English. “If we do (this exercise) at Fort Bragg, we already have established teams and personnel we’ve been working with. We wanted to know what we need to do in case of a rescue in Sampson County. We do this from time to time, but we know they don’t get a chance to do it.”
Should the time come where such an aviation rescue is necessary in Sampson, building working relationships and rapport, while working any kinks out of a response plan, would be vital in making that incident response a success, he said.
“We do a lot of jumps out of Clinton airport and this is a very realistic scenario for us,” English remarked. “We’ve been getting a lot out of this, and we now have good contact with all the Sampson County guys.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.