AN OVERVIEW OF THE RAF FIRE SERVICE

The First RAF Fire Fighters had a demanding task, fighting fires in aircraft was a new concept and required different methods from conventional fire fighting. In a crashed aircraft, aircrew surrounded by fire have only three minute survival time and this requires rapid response and suppression of flames in order to create survivable conditions to affect a rescue. The early fire fighters found themselves poorly trained and under equipped and they had to develop new skills with the equipment they had inherited which were not purpose built but converted standard fire vehicles. Those pioneers overcame these obstacles and paved the way for today’s RAF Fire Fighters and from those times to the present their aims were:

 

  • To Save Life
  • To Minimise Damage to Aircraft and Associated Equipment
  • To Make Safe any Special Risk

RAF Fire Fighters have served all over the world from Africa to the Middle East, India, Far East, Central America, Falklands, Canada and Europe and had to operate in hostile environments and conflict zones which always brings new challenges. Apart from aircraft crash rescue RAF Fire Fighters are also trained in conventional fire fighting enabling them to react to fires in technical areas and married quarters and on numerous occasions have assisted the Civil Fire service in local off base incidents. They also have been trained to;

  • Carry out Light rescue.
  • Fight fires involving Nuclear Weapons.
  • Carry out Fire Prevention of buildings.

They also have been involved in two specialised units which;

  • Provided fire cover to Nuclear Convoys on the UK roads.
  • Provided fire cover to The Queens Flight.

The RAF Fire Service is by nature a rapid response force they have always been considered the best people to carry out immediate operational tasks on and off the airfield and during their history they have been involved in;

  • Deployment of emergency airfield lighting.
  • Bird scaring.Recovery of aircraft engaging the Rotary Hydraulic Arrester Gear (RHAG).
  • Barrier Arresting Gear.
  • Inshore rescue.
  • Casualty evacuation in war zones

During their history RAF Firefighters have received many awards for acts of bravery, many of these were earned during WWII but many have been awarded in modern times. The awards include George Cross’s, George Medals, B.E.M.s and the highest was the Queens Gallantry Medal awarded in 2011 to Warrant Officer Steve Bowden for an incident in Afghanistan.

To trace the roots of the RAF Fire Service it is necessary to go back to the early days of Military Aviation, and as aircraft became more complex so did the Fire Fighters job and the need for improved equipment to enable them to save lives.

The RAF was officially formed on the 1st April 1918 and during its formative years the loss of aircraft and equipment due to fires caused a great deal of concern. These incidents can be said to have been the foundation stones of the present RAF Fire Service. Although it must be remembered at this time, personnel tasked with fire-fighting were taken from different trades, with fire fighting a secondary task and this would be the status quo until 1943 when the Air Ministry promulgated an order creating the trade of Fireman which would be a full time occupation.

History of the RAF Firefighter

1918
January 1

1918

In 1918 fires at Shotwick and Ternhill cost £57,000 also losses of nearly £50,000 after fires at Wyton, Upavon and Lopcombe Manor compelled the Air Ministry to order a number of fire fighting vehicles with pumping facilities. Also a fire On May 21st 1919 at Ligescourt in France resulted in the loss of a Handley Page aircraft (0/400 D8314) and the hanger in which was accommodated. This fire was fought with only portable extinguishers, subsequently the Court of Inquiry concluded that the RAF lacked effective fire fighting equipment and that personnel were poorly trained. This eventually led to the provision of a fire vehicle at every permanent RAF Station.

Merryweather1918A Merryweather/Hatfield conversion for airfields

leyland RAF Felixstowe 1920sLeyland Fire tender at RAF Felixstowe 1920’s

1921
January 1

1921

In 1921 Vehicles were initially adapted to the airfield role and modified Crossley 6X6 tenders were fitted with crash rescue equipment, a single 30 Gallon chemical foam extinguisher and ‘Fire Snow’ (Foam) hand held extinguishers. By 1922 the modification programme was complete. A rebuilt Crossley Crash tender at Duxford showing a single 30 gallon chemical extinguisher tank mounted behind the driver.
1922
January 1

1922

1922 The Fire Training of RAF personnel started at RAF Cranwell where a small unit was established to train a trade known as Aircraft Handler/Fire fighter. The London Fire Brigade controlled the Unit who provided the instructors and devised the training methods and schedules. The Chief Instructor of the unit was Captain Desbrough. Very little is known of the activities and effectiveness of the unit at RAF Cranwell; however links remained with the London Fire Brigade well into the 1940’s.
1930
January 1

1930

In 1930 the RAF ordered more Crossley and Morris B1 chassis for conversion to fire tenders. 1930 Crossley `on the run’ 1931 Morris Commercial 3 Foam Tanks and Wooden Body Work.
1932
January 1

1932

1932 The Air Ministry published an ‘Air Publication’ (AP) 957 entitled ‘ROYAL AIR FORCE FIRE MANUAL. Although it was a general fire fighting manual there is mentioned two early Fire Tenders and drills associated with these. Also an appendix laying out the Syllabus for a Course of Instruction in Fire Fighting Duties at RAF Cranwell appears. 1932 Ford 6 x 4 with Three Foam Tanks Another type of Crossley with mounted foam extinguishers. These vehicles also had the capacity for a stretcher bay to carry a casualty Rear view showing the stretcher bay.
1939
January 1

1930’s

During This Decade (1930’s) The Crossley IGL (Indian Government Lorry) went into service with the RAF the first example of this in 1936 was the ‘Streamlined Crossley’ 6×4 which was also the first fire vehicle with bodywork enclosing the whole vehicle. It was fitted with 200 gallon water tank and 20 gallons of foam compound were available for foam production and discharge by twin air-foam pumps driven by a power take-off in the cab. It was also equipped with four 60Ib CO2 cylinders discharging through hosereels and applicators. The streamlining was not an exercise in styling, but was designed to facilitate cleansing and decontamination after a gas attack. The streamlined tender and the one shown here was photographed at RAF SCAMPTON in 1936. A fire demonstration at RAF Cranwell in 1937 the vehicle being used is the Streamlined Crossley NB: The foam hose line the rescue men in asbestos suits carrying out a simulated rescue and the two other fire fighters using the CO2 lines The first type of protective clothing which was introduced for fire-fighters was an asbestos suit manufactured by Bells Asbestos and Engineering Company. It weighed around 28lbs (12.7 Kg) it was only worn for close rescue work by maybe two fire-fighters. The image shows two fire-fighters close to a Streamline Crossley, one holding the CO2 line and one holding the foam line. But by 1943/44 the asbestos suit was seen to be too cumbersome for use with modern aircraft and was rendered obsolete.
January 2

1930-50’s – Fire Floats

Many people would not associate the Royal Air Force Fire Service with boats. But in the late thirties early forties some seaplane tenders which were used for servicing RAF Flying Boats were converted to Fire Floats in order to reduce the risk of damage by fire in the seaplane while secured in the harbour out of reach of a normal fire tender and it would also be used to protect other installations. At first there were several conversion types, and ranged in length from 37.5 ft, 38ft and 40ft (11 to 12 mtrs) and were powered by either Meadows or Perkins engine. The conversion was improved and the Mk1a and MkIIa made an appearance. The water pumping unit for both conversion types was supplied by Coventry Climax and a 350/500 g.p.m. pump unit mounted on bearers within the cabin connected to a 5ft length of 4 inch suction hose coupled to a 5 inch sea inlet, A hand operated swivel type monitor was fixed to the cabin roof and fed by a short length of rubber lined hose from the starboard side pump delivery. Part of the port side cabin was cut away to accommodate a multi jet inductor with a 20 gallon foam compound tank. Shortened lengths of hose were used with No2 size foam producing branch pipes with a knapsack tank and two No10 branch pipes were also carried, one adapted for use with the monitor. The later modifications included two 50 gallon inter-connected foam tanks that were fitted in the bilges which allowed it to produce 2,700 g.p.m. of foam for 11 minutes. Alternatively, it could supply water only.         Fire Float 38 at RAF Pembroke Dock which was converted from Sea Plane Tender 396 in 1941 The standard crew for a Conversion fire Float was five men, consisting of one coxswain, one engineer, one N.C.O. fire fighter and two fire fighters. One Seaplane Tender ST206 which was converted to Fire Float 1 has connections to Aircraftsman Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) his workbook shows that he was based at RAF Catfoss (Bridlington) and that he worked extensively on ST 206 before its conversion. There were some purpose built fire floats built by Vosper Ltd of Portsmouth, 50ft and 60ft (15 to 18 mtrs) prototypes appeared but a 46ft (14mtrs) Mk2 won the day and two were produced carrying the designation FF93 and FF94. The pumping engine was a Ford V8 which drove a rotary vane pump manufactured by Sun Engineering Ltd and was designed to deliver 2,250 to 2,500 gallons of foam or 500 to 600 gallons of water. Vosper 46ft Mk2 With the end of RAF Flying Boat operations in the late 1950’s brought the demise of the Fire Floats for the RAF Fire Service but the Service would venture again in the marine world in the 1960’s.
1940
January 2

1940

In July 1940 the Fire Training moved from RAF Cranwell to RAF Weeton but only for 3 years and in August 1943 moved to RAF Sutton on Hull. This was where the Fire Service was to see immense changes in its structure and organisation. The Training unit was to be known as the RAF School of Firefighting. The Air Ministry realised that there had to be significant changes made in the approach to aircraft fire fighting. This was mainly due to aircraft becoming larger with increased fuel loads which in turn required greater foam producing capacity from vehicles. Also the introduction of the jet aircraft brought on new challenges and this required improved firefighting techniques and more intense and specialised training of personnel.

scampton line 40'sRAF Scampton 1940's

During the war years there was to be many acts of bravery by Fire Fighters and here is just one example of one airman who was awarded the British Empire Medal for Bravery in 1942

  1. Sergeant, John William EMMETT.

In the early hours of a day in September, 1941, this airman saw an aircraft having difficulty in landing at an aerodrome. Anticipating a crash, he took charge of the fire tender, although not officially on duty, and arrived at the scene of the accident within three minutes. The aircraft, which had been broken in two by the impact, was burning furiously and two members of the crew could be seen alive in the flames below the fuselage. Sergeant Emmett, protected only by asbestos gloves, dashed into the burning wreckage and extricated one of the crew. Before he could return for the second man, the petrol tank split and the fierce heat of the blazing petrol then prevented any near approach. Sergeant Emmett tried repeatedly to extricate the other living member of the crew by means of a grab hook but without success. In spite of a violent explosion, Sergeant Emmett continued to direct the work of his fire party until the fire was completely extinguished and the remaining bodies were recovered. Unfortunately, the rescued airman has since died of his injuries. Sergeant Emmett on this occasion displayed great devotion to duty and courage and disregard for his own safety. He has been in charge of the station firefighting personnel for the past 9 months and has shown considerable fortitude and presence of mind at many flying accidents on and near the station.

By 1940 the RAF Fire tender stock was mostly comprised of the Crossley FE1, the Streamlined and FWD Type with the introduction of the Ford Motor Company WOT1.

crossley FE1 1940

Crossley FE1 Crash Tender which carried 300 Gallons (1,350 Litres) of Water, (28 Litres) of Foam Compound and 4 60Ib CO2 cylinders

Crossley FWD 1940

A Crossley FWD Type 4X4 Crash Tender which carried 300 Gallons (1,350 Litres) of Water, (28 Litres) of Foam Compound and 4 60Ib CO2 cylinders.

WOT1 1940

A preserved WOT1 (War Office Truck 1) at the Museum of RAF Firefighting. The later type was modified to carry 400 gallons of water and 65 gallons of foam to increase foam production.

Although the WOT1 and Crossley’s were in production there was still a shortage of fire equipment in the mid-war years. It was when the Fire School moved to RAF Weeton that the ‘Weeton Type’ was developed, which was designated WOT1A. It was on a strengthened chassis with and enclosed cab but the water/compound mixture was fed into the suction side of a standard Coventry Climax light portable pump mounted across the chassis. This increased the quantity of foam produced and a longer jet throw. Some 350 ‘Weeton Type’ Crash Tenders were put into service following their introduction in 1944.

WEETON TYPE

The Air Ministry were still concerned that the ability of the current Crash Tenders where not adequate to deal with fires on the large multi engine aircraft. They carried out trials and these proved conclusively that this was the case. The Air Ministry set up a panel to examine and report on the problems.

1943
January 2

1943

December 1943 the Air Ministry Order promulgated the trade of Firefighter a sub-specialisation of the Officers Support Branch, that of ‘Fire and Anti-Gas Officer’ was set up to command the new trade. The School was renamed as the RAF School of Firefighting and Anti-Gas During the period a second school was opened at Ismalia in Egypt, but was closed at the end of the Second World War. At the end of the Second World War, the Air Traffic Control Officers branch assumed the responsibility of the RAF Fire Service. In the post war years, some 5,000 Regulars and National Service Conscripts were trained at RAF Sutton on Hull
1944
January 2

1944

Although the WOT1 and Crossley’s were in production there was still a shortage of fire equipment in the mid-war years. It was when the Fire School moved to RAF Weeton that the ‘Weeton Type’ was developed, which was designated WOT1A. It was on a strengthened chassis with and enclosed cab but the water/compound mixture was fed into the suction side of a standard Coventry Climax light portable pump mounted across the chassis. This increased the quantity of foam produced and a longer jet throw. Some 350 ‘Weeton Type’ Crash Tenders were put into service following their introduction in 1944.

WEETON TYPE

The ‘Weeton Type’

The Air Ministry were still concerned that the ability of the current Crash Tenders where not adequate to deal with fires on the large multi engine aircraft. They carried out trials and these proved conclusively that this was the case. The Air Ministry set up a panel to examine and report on the problems.

January 2

1944-5

In 1944 the panel concluded that that vehicles capable of producing not less than 2,400 gallons per minute (10,800 litres) for a period of 10 minutes (with additional water supplies) should be made available. Also this should be supported by 1,500Ibs of Carbon Dioxide, but at the time no chassis could carry the quantity of media required. So the recommendations of the panel were met by producing Foam Tenders backed up by Water Tenders and CO2 Tenders.

The first of these new Crash Tenders was the “1944 Conversion Type”, so called because it was a conversion of the 1942 WOT1.

1944 conversion

1944 Conversion Type

This carried 300 gallons (1,350 litres) of water and 100 gallons (450 litres) of foam. The main innovation was the provision of three monitors, two on the rear deck and one on the collapsible tower. Two 2½ inch hand lines could also be used at ground level if required. The foam was mixed by a pump which was independent of the road engine.

1944 conversion action

1944 Conversion Type in action showing the platform extended 

The next Crash tender was the 1944 Monitor Type which was on an extended Ford WOT1A1chassis which allowed a longer crew cab to be fitted to give protection to all personnel. The tower was dispensed with and firefighting was performed by a rear mounted monitor or four hand lines, this was supplemented by four 60 IbCO2.

1945 monitor type

1945 Monitor Type

To carry on with the recommendations of the Air Ministry Panel that the foam attack should be supported by a CO2 attack the CO2 Tender was produced and was commonly known as the “Gas Truck” It was based on an Austin K6 6x4 chassis. The Co2 (24 x 60Ib cylinders) were installed in four banks of six cylinders each and housed longitudinally on the vehicle chassis, two banks either side, with a catwalk in the centre.

autin k6 6x4

Preserved Austin K6 CO2 Tender at the Museum of RAF Fire Fighting

The new acquired tenders, the 1944 Conversion, the 1944 Monitor and Gas Truck did not come into service until after the war had ended. The additional water supplies required were carried on converted water carriers based on Bedford OY or Dodge, Canadian Ford and the Chevrolet 4x2 chassis. The Bedford was the most common.

Beford OY water tanker

Bedford OY Water Tanker

Another development which happened during the War and Post War years was the introduction of an Aircraft Crash Rescue Truck. This was to be a small vehicle which would be fast to the scene of a crash to reduce the time trapped aircrew would be exposed to fire.

Willys jeep

The first which was introduced in 1943 was the Willy’s Jeep which carried four foam extinguishers, two CO2 extinguishers and one CTC extinguisher. It also carried two asbestos blankets, a short ladder, various hand tools, a first aid kit and a searchlight.

Other versions over the years were developed most based on a Landrover chassis.

1947
January 2

1947

1947 brought and upgrade to the AP 957 (Air Publication) designated as Part 1 for general firefighting guidance and drills. In 1949 The second part was published and was for aircraft fire fighting and crash rescue services. ap957 1947ap957 1949

As part of the training package at RAF Sutton-on-Hull recruits were issued with two manuals based on the information in the Air Publications and technical information from the producers of the Crash Trucks.

standard notesstandard notes crash tender

But not all RAF Firemen were trained at RAF Sutton-on-Hull. According to written accounts of Firemen of that era up to about the year 1952, National Service Firemen were sometimes trained on their own unit to which they were posted. After the trade of Fireman was formalised in 1943 in 1949/50 the trade Fireman/Driver was introduced. When in 1951 the trade came under Group 9 they came under Air Traffic Control (ATC) and became Aero Fireman or Aero/Fireman/Driver.

1953
January 2

1952

1952 saw the first of the post war vehicles coming into service, this was the Mk5 Crash Tender built by Whitson on a Thorneycroft 4x4 chassis with Sun Engineering fitting the fire equipment. It carried 400 gallons (1,800 litres) of water and 60 gallons (270 litres) of foam, the foam being delivered through hand lines. This also could be used for domestic (structural) firefighting.

mk5

Mk5 Showing an original registration (AF) as they were built on second hand chassis’s

January 2

1953

It was on the 2nd December 1953 the iconic Fire Badge was approved by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and presented to the Fire School by Air Marshal Sir Victor E Groome KVCO KBE CBE DFC. The badge was designed by Regional Arts & Craft College Hull. The motto was arranged by a Professor of the University of Hull, the translation being

“E Flammis Atque Ruinis Salus” “Safety from Flame and Ruins”

crest_raffire.gif

WC Eyes

RAF Sutton-on-Hull Station Commander Wing Commander Eyes looking at the newly presented crest

1954
January 2

1954

The Land Rover 86’was introduced, carrying the same basic equipment as the Willy’s Jeep.

landrover 86

Image showing the equipment on the Landrover 86

1955
January 2

1955 – 8

1955 was to see the first Crash Truck in the RAF with a central forward facing monitor. It was designated the Mk5A the body was built by University Motors and fire equipment by Pyrene. The early productions had a different rear body shape. This tender carried 450 gallons (2,025 litres) of water and 60 gallons (270 litres) of foam compound. This also could be used for domestic (structural) fire fighting.

mk5a

Mk5A with the square rear bodywork, photographed at Christmas Island (Australian Indian Ocean Territories) 

mk5a rounded

Mk5A with the rounded rear body work, this vehicle served at RAF Leeming (Yorkshire) and RAF Sharjah (UEA)

1955 the first of the ‘V Force’ aircraft, the Valiant came into production followed in 1956 by the Vulcan and the Victor in 1958 with such large aircraft carrying large amounts of fuel the need for Crash Trucks which were capable of producing large quantities of foam at a rapid rate needed to be developed. Although the Mk5A was a great leap forward from the War time trucks, continuing development was still required.

1958
January 2

1958

The Next Major Crash Truck finally delivered to the RAF in 1958 was to be the Mk6, a totally different type of vehicle that had never been seen before in the RAF Fire Service. Based on the Alvis Salamander chassis developed from the Alvis Saladin armoured car chassis it was 6x6 giving great off road capability and it could reach 60mph on a flat surface powered by a rear mounted Rolls Royce Mk81A petrol engine using a 5 speed pre-select gearbox. The driver position was in the centre of the cab. Although the foam producing capacity was about the same as the Mk5A the Mk6 carried 700 gallons (3,000 litres) of water and 100 gallon (450 litres) of foam, plus 10 gallons (42.5 litres) of CBM (Chlorobromomethane) used for secondary fires. It also had an internal fire suppression system for the rear engine compartment. It remained in service until 1978 and had many modifications which brought about variants named Mk6A, 6B, 6C and 6D.

2014_0625picsColin0020

MK6 restored and owned by the Museum of RAF Firefighting