COLD BAY, ALASKA -- Expeditionary firefighting and rescue Marines with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit responded to a downed bush plane at Cold Bay Airport, Alaska, May 7, 2021. None of the aircraft passengers were injured.
Marines with the 15th MEU are in Cold Bay for Exercise Northern Edge 2021, a joint training exercise of approximately 15,000 U.S. service members conducting operations in various locations in and around Alaska.
On Friday afternoon, expeditionary firefighting and rescue Marines with Marine Wing Support Detachment, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced), 15th MEU, were loading up in two Oshkosh Striker T3000 firetrucks, having just received word of a simulated vehicle fire that needed to be extinguished. Russell Ruta, Cold Bay’s vice Mayor and a local aircraft rescue firefighter, was riding along for the training.
At 1:00 P.M., a second call came in asking the group to change course; a small, two-man bush plane had gone down shortly after takeoff and the closest responders were Ruta and the Marines.
“It was about a minute after we got the call [to respond to the simulated fire] when Cold Bay Radio called and said there was a downed plane,” said Ruta. “Within one minute we went from a simulation to a real incident.”
Sgt. Joseph Graydon, an expeditionary firefighting and rescue crew leader with MWSD, VMM-164 (Rein.), 15th MEU, and his crew were the first responders on the scene.
“We had to cease the training operations, and turn our sights on the actual plane that went down. There were two people on-board, by the time we got down there the pilot and co-pilot were walking towards us,” Graydon explained. “We called on our corpsmen to treat them for any medical injuries they may have had – that was just precautionary.”
Satisfied that the pilot and co-pilot were out of immediate danger, the Marines secured the area and the downed plane, relying on previous training as a team to ensure all appropriate measures were taken.
“We have to be trained up in any type of situation possible which proved itself here today,” said Graydon. “Once we got to the plane we shut the fuel off and disconnected the batteries. You have got to make sure you know about all types of aircraft so [you] can get into the aircraft and find the safeties, the battery turnoffs. You need to know how to shut down the power sources, the fuel sources.”
After securing the area and loading up the pilots’ gear, the Marines departed back to the firehouse to regroup and debrief. Although any downed aircraft is a serious event, Ruta acknowledged the fortunate timing.
“The last time I know of that a plane went down out here was 12 years ago,” he said. “It was phenomenal that Marines were here…having extra hands, bodies and minds going through the process of securing the area. It would have just been me, Hap [the airport manager] and Dave [another operator] out there. Just the three of us. To be able to have a whole crew here was awesome.”
The expeditionary firefighting and rescue specialists of the 15th MEU may have just met Ruta and the Cold Bay firefighters, but their ability to work together did not take Sgt. Graydon by surprise.
“Being a firefighter is like being a different breed…it’s kind of like being a Marine,” said Graydon. “Immediately there’s a bond. We did our training with these guys, they were great to have on the crew. I immediately knew I could trust [and work with] them, which proved itself again today.”
The Marines will continue their training during Exercise Northern Edge 2021, but the event will serve as a reminder that a real-world call can happen anytime, anywhere.
NE21 is a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command exercise designed to provided high-end, realistic war fighter training, develop and improve joint interoperability, and enhance the combat readiness of participating forces. This is done by providing a venue for large force employment training and multi-domain operations; tactical training for the full spectrum of conflict; execute and advance adaptive basing joint tactics, techniques, and procedures; advance live-virtual-constructive capabilities; and support U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s experimental initiatives.