It was a warm, bright evening on Wednesday as an emergency alarm sounded and gray smoke rose from a simulator plane at University Park Airport.
Minutes later, there was a raging fire. A lime green airport fire truck pulled up and doused the flames.
As emergency medical services arrived, about 40-50 "casualty" actors, covered in fake blood and zombie makeup, began screaming and flailing around.
It was all part of the airport's full-scale emergency exercise, completed once every three years as required by the Federal Aviation Administration. (In the other years, the airport conducts "table top" exercises.)
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It's an opportunity for the airport's Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting crews to exercise, train and work with the local emergency response agencies that back them up, said Bryan Rodgers, director of University Park Airport.
"What we try to do is develop a scenario that is as real world as possible," he said.
That scenario was a mid-air collision between two planes. And it involved two crash sites.
Rodgers said the intention was to split the resources and tax the system.
"The exercise is based around a commercial air carrier," he said. "We don't script it to any great level of detail because we want people to rely on their training, but we have a framework drafted up in order to get the exercise kicked off and get people responding in the manner that they've been trained."
The exercise involved local police and fire departments, emergency medical services, hazmat teams and other local, state and federal government and community agencies, along with the airport's on-site ARFF crews.
University Park Airport has three airlines flying regional jets to four hubs — Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. In April, United replaced its 50-seat jet to Chicago with a 70-seat jet. It's because of these aircraft and daily service that the airport exercises its emergency plan, Rodgers said.
"Our ARFF personnel, as well as the local responders, have a tremendous amount of responsibility. … Everybody comes out with the intent to do a great job, and they do. And I'm always impressed at the turnout and the dedication of all those (volunteers). … As good as our guys are, we can't do it by ourselves. As with any other airport, airports have mutual aid agreements, and we rely on the local communities to assist," he said.
The exercise was expected to take two and a half to three hours, Rodgers said. A debrief with incident command staff was scheduled to take place at the conclusion, and there will be a report issued in the coming weeks on how the exercise went that the airport will work from.
"We always seem to identify things that we can do better," he said.