For 51 weeks a year, the nine members of “silver suit” crew at the Oshkosh Fire Department station protect Wittman Regional Airport 24/7. During EAA AirVenture, however, roughly a dozen Oshkosh firefighters, and a handful from the Wisconsin Air National Guard, join them to cover the airport at remote stations situated at strategic locations from north to south.
The Oshkosh crews are located at the airport fire station, known as Position 1. Position 2 is set in from the intersection of east-west and north-south runways. Position 3 is at midfield, and the Guard crew covers Position 4 at the south end of the north-south runway. Each is staffed by a two person crew, said John, whose partner, Ryan, was checking the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) truck after a crew change.
As it is during the rest of the year, the airport fire station is staffed 24/7 by a crew of three. The remote positions are staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., when the airport is open for aircraft operations. Divided into 2-hour shifts, each day the Oshkosh firefighters rotate among the three positions, with back-to-back 4-hour stints at the outlying positions separated by a 2-hour shift at the airport firehouse.
Regardless of where they are stationed in the city, John said, Oshkosh firefighters work a constantly rotating schedule of 24 hours on and 48 off. During AirVenture, those from other stations work their regular schedule, and put in overtime at Wittman.
All Oshkosh firefighters are trained for aircraft fires, said John, but when a commercial airliner, like the Honor Flight that carries veterans from AirVenture to the the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, operates from Wittman, government regulations require live-fire training, which is conducted at Volk Field at Fort McCoy. Each year, firefighters must undergo this training to qualify for AirVenture overtime.
The AirVenture duty can be boring, but in their line of work, that’s not a bad thing. “You can’t look at the airplanes all the time…you’ll drive yourself crazy, especially when there’s a bit of wind, like today,” said John. To adjust for the wind blowing across the runway, the pilots point the nose of their airplanes into it. Just before touchdown they lower the upwind wing and point the nose down the runway. “I’m sure that to the pilot it’s a normal landing [and it is], but to us, [we’re thinking], oh, boy, straighten it out.”
The crews roll for any incident, John said, and Wittman improved Position 2 this year with a compacted gravel road to the taxiway that leads to the rest of the airport pavement. Parking on the grass was okay, unless it rained. After responding to an incident, the airport had to clean the mud off the taxiways and runways because it can damage airplanes and their engines. Jets are especially good at vacuuming all sorts on debris from the pavement. Most of the time the crews sit in the shade of their portable porches, stay hydrated, and ready to roll when the call comes over the radio.