Airport firefighter hopes his services won’t be needed (Photo: Geisel)
Ask Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH) firefighter Rick Poedtke how to spell his last name and you’ll probably get it in military parlance: Papa, Oscar, Echo, Delta, Tango, Kilo, Echo.
After 24 years in the U.S. Navy, it should come as no suprise. But, it’s exactly those years that make him one of the unique and vital, if somewhat unnoticed facets of the airport’s operation. Poedtke pilots MMH’s ARFF 1, or Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting apparatus.
It looks like something out a science fiction action movie, but the all-wheel drive, all-weather vehicle, the Colet-made K-15s Jaguar, is actually a Navy design, used at air bases and on flight decks all over the world.
And flight deck operations are a world very familiar to Poedtke, who spent more than a dozen years of his Naval career on four aircraft carriers as a Naval Aviation Bosun’s Mate, achieving the rank of Chief, he was in charge of firefighting teams in one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet: launching and recovering aircraft at sea.
One of his crews won top honors for firefighting four years in a row. And you might not have met him personally, but if you’ve seen major films such as “Top Gun” or “Hunt for the Red October,” you’ve actually seen Poedtke and his team in action.
“I was serving on the U.S.S. Enterprise when those scenes were made,” Poedtke recalls. “That’s me and my crew in the first four minutes of ‘Top Gun.’ I’m the guy putting an A-7E (Corsair fighter plane) on Cat (Catapult) 2.”
Taking actors such as Sean Conneray and Alec Baldwin on tours of the flight deck was the frivolous part of his job in those days. Poedtke remembers his “movie star” days as being “a pain in the butt.”
What really sticks with him to this day are the faces of the men under his command. “It’s dangerous, and all it takes is one mistake. We have a saying on the flight deck: ‘our training manual is written in blood.’”
In firefighting, however, there is no room for error. “It’s learn or burn.”
Poedtke said once he retired from the Navy in 1999, he wanted to put that part of his life behind him, and focus on climbing and fishing.
He moved to the Eastern Sierra in 2002 and began volunteering at the Long Valley Fire Dept. under Chief fellow firefighter Vince Maniaci. At the time, covering the airport was part of the LVFD’s responsibility, since it falls within the jurisdiction.
“I was helping with training and so on, and Chief Stump said it was great to have someone with aircraft experience in case something does happen,” Poedtke said. Prior to joining up with LVFD, Poedtke had also logged three years civilian aviation experience, revamping the training and operations protocols with Atlantic Aviation at the Santa Barbara Airport.
Every so often, MMH Director Bill Manning would “hint” that he’d like Poedtke to come to work at the airport. “I kept saying I was retired,” Poedtke replied.
Manning and Poedtke had worked together years earlier (1979!) when Rick was a crew chief and Bill a pilot with a Naval helicopter group flying scientific research missions for the National Science Foundation in Antarctica.
“I was also working at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, but when I got injured a couple of years back, I applied for a seasonal job, and was hired last year,” he related.
Many firefighting tactics and tools used in aviation have their roots on flight decks, though. The ARFF, for example, uses a water and aqueous film-forming foam mixture, also developed by the Navy, which evelopes fires, and a sodium bicarbonate-based powder that breaks down fires at the molecular level.
He’s part pilot, physicist and chemist. “You have to know your enemy,” Poedtke observed. “You also have to know your aircraft. There are lots of different things that can happen to a plane, inside and outside. It’s learn or burn.”
His job, as he sees it, isn’t to rescue anyone, but pave a path for rescuers in the event of a major incident. “My job is to respond and contain … hold off the bad guys until backup arrives,” he summarized.
Just as local fire crews have extensive structural and other knowledge to do their work, Poedtke has banked a lot of experience with numerous types of fires, from small electrical fires that sometimes pop up in the cockpit to hot brakes. “You shoot a straight stream of water at a hot brake fire and it will blow up on you and kill every man on the hose line,” he pointed out. Small fires can go from flame to full engulfment in as little as 2 minutes. And “runaway” battery fires can be tricky, since some aircraft batteries are situated adjacent to the oxygen tanks for the flight crew, a design flaw that can lead to a major catastrophe if not handled quickly and efficiently.
“I don’t have a lot of tact, but as a Navy Chief or a fire incident commander, you need someone who can take charge and make things happen. I know what that’s like, and I also know how to respond to a situation and do my job.”
Running scenarios in his head and being ready for any eventuality is something he learned first hand during his time on carrier decks. “Every aircraft that comes in, you think, ‘Is this one going to crash? How will it crash? And you think about how to respond to it,” he explained. “99% of the time it won’t, but I’ve had a lot of incidents. Major conflags (conflagrations) aren’t something you want to see happen. It can get pretty gnarly pretty fast.”
Used to handling hundreds of aircraft and dozens of flights per day, the tempo at MMH isn’t even close to flight deck fervor. But he does go to Los Angeles International for refresher training. “They handle a lot of aircraft of all sizes on a daily basis … civilian, cargo and even Air National Guard flights.”
Future plans for Mammoth Yosemite Airport include acquiring another, perhaps bigger ARFF, and eventually putting Poedtke on full-time with some additional manpower, to meet the needs of the expanding airport.
Poedtke shared his duties with Alex Ramos, who was also on part-time at the Airport this winter. Ramos, a former Asst. Building Inspector with the Town, had more seniority than Poedtke, but was not retained when the time came to ramp down flight activity for the summer season.
Airport officials and Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht said the call on who stayed on was theirs, and was based on certain qualifications and certifications that Poedtke possessed, rather than a reflection on Ramos and his job performance.
First on scene
Poedtke got to test his skills in a recent “not a drill” incident.
At approximately 4:20 p.m. on Friday, April 27, he fired up the ARFF when a twin engine Cessna general aviation (GA) aircraft needed to make a “gear-up” landing on the runway. Putting in calls for backup to the Long Valley and Mammoth Lakes fire protection districts, in addition to the Mammoth Lakes Police Department, the ARFF was on scene in less than 10 seconds.
Airport officials said the occupants were safely evacuated from the aircraft in less than a minute, and the crash scene totally secured by the ARFF R1 shortly before the arrival of LVFD personnel just minutes later.
According to Poedtke the aircraft was removed from the runway in just under 20 minutes as Alaska Air Flight 2196 circled, awaiting clearance to land.
“This operation went flawlessly,” Poedtke observed. He noted that all the Alaska Air departing passengers, and arrival family and friends greeted him and the responders with cheers as the ARFF was repositioned in front of the Terminal building.
Alaska Air 2196 from Los Angeles landed safely after only a four-minute total delay. All in all, it was a total of 26 minutes from aircraft impact to an open runway and Alaska Air landing.
For now, it’s one man, one ARFF, but that’s okay with Poedtke. He’s happy just to be still answering his true calling as a fire professional, with training and equipment he hopes he’ll never have to use.