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Navy crew ready for any crash or burn

While U.S. Navy Prowler jets, manned by pilots and other aircrew, are a visible presence in the skies over the Coupeville area, there’s a lesser known, not-so-visible, but equally important crew quietly standing by, hoping it won’t be summoned into action.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s Outlying Field, located on Highway 20 just south of Coupeville, is where pilots of Prowlers practice carrier arrested landings.

The OLF Crash and Salvage crew is there, ready to snap into action should an emergency arise. They are active duty Navy personnel, trained firefighters, hazardous material handlers, and emergency medical first-responders.

“They take care of the fleet carrier landing practice,” said Chief Warrant Officer Mark Vanoort, who is in charge of the department. “These guys are here in case something goes sour.”

Things haven’t gone sour at OLF since the last crash occurred there in the 1980s. It’s usually pretty quiet out there in the country, surrounded by farm land.

In fact, the crew of 10 men all agree it can be downright slow.

“When we say it’s slow, we’re coming from a ship,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeff Porter.

Most of the crew are Aviation Boatswainmate Handlers. ABHs, the men said, are extremely busy on aircraft carriers. They are responsible for the safe movement of airplanes on a flight deck or hangar deck, which includes directing the pilots where to go and when to go.

To understand the job of an ABH on an aircraft carrier, Porter said, think of the flight deck scenes in the 1986 movie “Top Gun,” starring Tom Cruise. The guys on the flight deck, who seemed to duck just in time as an F-14’s wing passed over them, were ABHs.

While duty at OLF is slow in comparison to the fast-paced environment on an aircraft carrier, this crew is anything but out-of-practice.

“They’re probably some of the most highly trained firefighters in the Navy right now,” said Chief Petty Officer Reid Wilson of his crew.

Before taking on the jobs at OLF most of the crew first attended the Louis F. Garland Fire Academy, a U.S. Air Force training facility in San Angelo, Texas. This 109 days of training has provided them with exceptional skills that benefit both the Navy and the civilian sector, and has provided these sailors with top-notch firefighting skills.

Porter went into the firefighting side of the ABH rate, as opposed to the aircraft directing side. He hopes to use his training and skills as a firefighter even after his Navy career comes to a close.

Both Porter and Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Stolt are volunteer firefighters in Whidbey Island communities, Porter with District 5 and Stolt with District 2. The not-so-hectic pace at their regular jobs at OLF allow them to assist the community through volunteer work.

“Hence the reason we all ... do community work. We have a little more time right now,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Roy Thomas.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Dan Miller and Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Young volunteer their time to Oak Harbor’s youth, either through work at schools or with the Boys’ and Girls’ Club by chaperoning at Neutral Zone.

When all is quiet at OLF the crew busies itself by maintaining the buildings and equipment and by caring for the grounds.

“The challenge out here is this is an old facility and these guys put in a lot of work to keep it operational,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be a lot better when we leave here than when we got here.”

Over 60 years that OLF has been in operation, crews have upgraded the facilities, keeping them suitable for use.

The entire crew also drills three to five times per week, which means practicing for actual emergencies.

Donning full gear weighing about 50 pounds, the crew responds to a mock crash site somewhere within a five-mile-radius of the airfield. Crash and salvage crews need to be ready for all aircraft crash scenarios, they said. The crew remains familiar with the characteristics of the land around the airfield, as well as public and private roads.

Once a mock crash scene is taken care of, the crew usually returns to OLF to conduct a fire drill at the field and to simulate a rescue using the 200-pound training dummy.

“They can handle anything that comes out, from a crash, if we ever have one, to structural (fires). We have the training and talent to do it,” said Vanoort.

At a real aircraft crash scene, the Crash and Salvage crew would put out the fire and attend to the emergency medical needs of personnel. Then the salvage part of the job would come into play.

“The reason they have us ... is we have to figure out a way to get the wreckage up out of the landing area and turn it back over to the squadron,” Wilson said.

The entire crew is on alert any time aircraft are flying at the field. They wait in the tower, half dressed in their emergency gear with a crash truck parked right outside, just in case. The crew’s work schedule is determined by the Prowler squadrons’ training schedule, which Wilson usually receives on Thursday for the following week.

Vanoort described his crew as “a bunch of good guys.” They get along well with each other and have formed friendships. They know how to laugh and joke and razz each other a bit. Yet, they also know how to get serious.

“I would take any of these guys on a ship with me as a crash crew,” Vanoort said. “They’re trained up, ready to go and that’s what we have to do. And, I think they’re having fun, too.”

To which Thomas replied: “Wouldn’t be doin’ it if we weren’t.”

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