accident plane crash such as that of Pan Am Flight 759

In the event of a plane crash, such as Pan Am Flight 759, emergency reaction and firefighting are critical to mitigating the effects of crash explosions. The firemen must understand how to manage the fire in accordance with emergency response procedures that have evolved over the last thirty years to meet airport regulations. The crash impact destroyed the Pan Am Flight 759 causing it to explode and then broke out in flames. The crash killed 145 people on board, eight on the ground and destroyed eleven houses, five of which were beyond repair. The inadequacy of the land-based low-level wind shear detection technology, which would have provided appropriate guidance for controllers and pilots to use, also contributed to the accident. The New Orleans International Airport has Low-Level Wind Shear Alert System (LLWSAS) which at the time of the crash was functioning. The pilot got a notice on the availability of the alert system on the airport’s instrument approach chart along the runway.

Keywords: wind shear, fire and emergency response, Pan Am Flight 759, ARFF, LLWSAS.

Pan Am Flight 759


A wind shear is a sudden change of wind which an airplane may encounter during its takeoff or landing. Under severe wind shear conditions, the pilot may experience challenges in controlling the flight and need immediate and accurate corrective actions to sustain the airplane and maintain its safety.

The international civil aviation carried out a survey and observed that low-level wind shear of approximately 1500 ft altitude caused more than twenty crashes significant passenger planes to crash between 1965 and 1983 (ICAO 2005 Pan Am Flight 759 was among the affected airplanes.

The Pan Am Flight 759, a domestic passenger Boeing 727, regularly flew from Miami, Florida, to San Diego, California, and had its en-route stops in Las Vegas, Nevada, and New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States. The plane crash killed all the 145 passengers on board and eight people on the ground except a six months old baby.

The winds were swirling and varying. The flight, at 10 a.m., left its runway, ascending to an altitude of over 100ft above the ground and began an immediate descent. The plane struck tree lines as it was flying at a lower elevation of 2235 ft and continued hitting trees and houses along its descent path and then crashed in a residential area.

The microburst-induced wind shear imposed a downdraft and a decrease in headwind which the airplane encountered during its lift-off and initial ascent phase during the takeoff flight. The pilot could not quickly determine such impacts delaying his ability to react promptly to control the plane before crashing into trees as it descended.

The airport lacked the ground-based low-level wind shear detection technology which would have detected the wind shear hence contributing to the Pan Am Flight 759’s plane crash. (Bell & Tsui, 1981).

Wind Shear Detectors and Warning Installations

Some of the preventive measures airports have put in place include some wind shear detection and warning signs such as the Winds hear and Turbulence Warning System (WTWS), Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and the Wind shear Alerting System (LIWAS). The meteorological department also provides observed weather forecasts for the pilots and tower controllers through the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) of the airport (Shun, Lau & Lee, 2003).

All the warning mechanisms alert the pilots and control tower of any significant wind shear within the airport before landing or takeoff, thus cautioning planes from the impacts of wind shear implications.

The New Orleans International Airport has Low-Level Wind Shear Alert System (LLWSAS) which at the time of the accident was functioning (Bell & Tsui, 1981). The pilot got a notice on the availability of the alert system on a diagram chart on the airport’s instrument approach chart along the runway (Shun, Lau & Lee, 2003).

The New Orleans airport’s detection and warning are at a centerfield wind shear sensors that were at the end of each runway. The five detectors have the designations of east, south, west, northeast, and northwest, each providing both speed and direction of the wind to a centralized computer and other display units. One of the groups is in the tower cab and the remaining four in the Terminal Radar Approach Control. Such warning systems are standardized and available in all the nation’s airports for emergency preparedness and regulatory compliance (Shun, Lau, & Lee, 2003).

Aural alarm as a warning is also present in airports. The Aural signal often sounds when the vector variation in both speed and direction of the wind exceeds the average reading of the peripheral sensors for 30 seconds at an average of 15 knots. After the alarm sounds, the affected sensor sends digital information, flashing in the appropriate rows of the tower display as a warning.

The Aviation regulations require the location of the detectors to be within the airport boundaries. As such, the sensors shall manage to detect wind shears associated with weather systems moving toward the airport. Such early detections provide early warnings to the pilots and the control tower (Bell & Tsui, 1981).

The warning system at the New Orleans International Airport occupied locations free from any obstacles that would prevent their readings hence all the detectors conformed to the established aviation regulations and requirements (Shun, Laum, & Lee, 2003). The sensors received testing and evaluation as per the provisions.

Lockheed Martin’s Wind tracer Doppler Lidar is a light detection and ranging system that is installed in airports to detect hazardous wind shear within the terminal (Shun, Lau & Lee, 2003).

The system tracks hazardous wind patterns and issues early warning of wind shear, enabling traffic control to provide accurate and timely guidance to pilots during the takeoff and landings, which are the most critical phases of flight. Moreover, the wind shear proves to be dangerous as it affects the pilot’s ability to control the plane. The Wind Tracer has a hazard detection capability, and airports use it to minimize accidents due to wind shear (Bell & Tsui, 1981).

Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Standards

The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States has the sole responsibility of formulating Safety Regulatory Standards that regulate the civil aviation, thus ensuring the safety of the aircrafts. The Federal Aviation Administration the Safety Regulatory Standards through the issuance of regulations as well as minimum operational standards and procedures that regulate the manufacturing, operating, and maintenance of aircrafts.

The Administration develops rules assigning airspace use and controls all the traffic control towers as a safety standard procedure and works to improve any part of an airport that could be hazardous or cause an accident. The Federal Aviation Administration must seek the opinion of the public when proposing to change an existing regulation or develop new rule aimed at enhancing the airport and aircrafts safety level.

The Federal Aviation Administration also publishes Advisory Circulars to supplement the regulations (Advisory Circular, 1973). The Advisory Circulars in addition to advising can also be mandatory in certain circumstances where safety is at stake. For instance, in case an airport operator accepts a Federal Aviation Administration grant to purchase an ARFF Vehicle, then, the standards for manufacturing ARFF design become mandatory as they affect the safety (Gonczy, 2015).

Section three eleven of the H.R. 915 EH, FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 requires close alignment of Airport Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) regulations within the 14th Title Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 139, Certification of Airports based on voluntary consensus standards (Dong, Han & Li, 2014). The difference in ARFF procedures between 1982 and present day arose from both the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Some of the procedures include the clarification of the airports based on their carrying capacity and functioning of the terminals.

As for safety, Part 139 deals with aircraft safety and firefighting. The National Fire Protection Association 403 Section 139.319 (h) requires an operator at the airport to ascertain the capability of their rescue and firefighting vehicles to respond within three minutes to the midpoint of the farthest air carrier runway for the first car and four minutes for other required trucks.

The Federal Aviation Administration adopted Title 14CFR Part 139 in 1972 to enhance airport safety (Gonczy, 2015). The FAA amended and rewritten severally to remain relevant with the changes and dynamic nature of airports as each year passes (Gonczy, 2015). The first rewriting was in 1988 and the second revision was through the 2004 bill. Part 139 lays out specific requirements that guide airport operators with carrier passenger planes. The specification includes those that focus on the aircraft firefighting and rescue procedures according to Sections 139.315, 139.317 and 139.319.

Changes in Emergency Response Procedures

The National Fire Protection Association procedure requires the first vehicle to reach any point of the operational runway in two minutes or less according to the National Fire Protection Association 403, paragraph 9.1.3 of 2009. The International Civil Aviation’s response is a three-minute requirement for any fire response vehicle to reach any point of the runway.

The set time limits are vital in the determination of location and the number of fire stations that an airport requires. The duration determines the number of firefighting vehicles an airport needs in the event of an emergency. (Dong, Han, & Li, 2014).

The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 1996 Section 44706 amendment allowed the Federal Aviation Administration as an Agency to issue certificates to airports except for Alaska State’s airports, (Gonczy, 2015). The NTSB report findings recommended FAA to certify all airports serving regular air carriers to enhance the safety of airports (Gonczy, 2015).

The Federal Aviation Administration has used the amendment which was not included in the 1996 change to establish one- level safety procedure (Gonczy, 2015). The revision of the regulations focused on the air carrier operations through the 14 CFR parts 121 and 135. Such practices enhance safety standards for the air carriers. Additionally, the changes in methods established minimum standards of safety, covering all airports which FAA has the authority to certify (Gonczy, 2015).

The new procedures require that Airport Class One certificate holders to include a description of the training program, firefighting personnel, equipment, and maintenance records. The compliance with the requirements will align with the proposed 139.301 as well as the changes in the 139.303 that has been in existence.

The NFPA’s requirement of the two-minute response in the runway would double the number of ARFF vehicles and the number of firefighters following an implementation of Part 139 of 476 in airports. The airplane firefighters and rescue teams must demonstrate to the organizations their ability to respond to a certain point on the airfield promptly (Dong, Han & Li, 2014).

Though the location may differ, ICAO through its Annex 14, paragraph 9.1.3, states that the response time depends on optimum conditions of visibility and surface conditions. FAA Part 139 uses different requirements according to its Order 5280.5C which guide the FAA airport certification inspectors, stating that the response time depends on direct routes, clarity of pavements and good weather (Gonczy, 2015). The response time requirements determine the locations and number of fire stations and response vehicles.

The Federal Aviation Administration Requirements

Federal Aviation Administration’s conditions as per paragraph 139.319 (h) Section Two (2) states that “within three minutes from the time alarm goes off, a fire rescue vehicle must reach the midpoint of the farthest runway. The point should be the one that serves the air carrier aircraft from its assigned station and starts applying the fire extinguishing agent (Gonczy, 2015).

ICAO Requirements

Annex 14, 9.2.21 standard requires that “operational objective of the emergency response and rescue firefighting shall endeavor to achieve a response time less than three minutes to any point of the runway at an optimum visibility and surface conditions (Gann, 2007). The second vehicle needed to apply extinguishing agent should drive and arrive in less than one minute following the first response vehicle to provide continued application of the extinguishing agent as ICAO Annex 14 paragraph 9.2.24 recommends.

NFPA Requirements

The NFPA 403 in Paragraph 9.1.3 requires that the first response vehicle must reach any section of the operational runway not exceeding two minutes in optimum visibility and surface conditions. The other support vehicles must arrive at intervals not more than thirty seconds (Gann, 2007).

Fire Emergency Response

Major aircraft accidents rarely occur, but when they do, a significant requirement falls on the fire and emergency response units who seek to provide emergency response and rescue services. Such interventions often need lots of support from all emergency responders ranging from the rescue and evacuation team, medical personnel, and firefighters (Dong, Han & Li, 2014).

The Fire Rescue Service Operational Guidelines offer emergency response procedure and requirements. The procedure guides in the provision of services robustly and flexible that effectively mitigates fire incidents following an airplane’s crash. Firefighters need to use conventional procedures, practices, and principles when responding to aircraft fire accidents to minimize extensive damage and casualties (Pan, 2013).

The fire and rescue services act requires relevant authorities to securely provide the firefighting equipment and services necessary in meeting all the requirements as well as training for firefighting personnel (Dong, Han, & Li, 2014).

The primary responsibility of the Fire and Rescue and emergency response team is to save lives, fight and prevent the fire from spreading as well as reducing environmental destruction. (Dong, Han, & Li, 2014). The emergency responders must also ensure health and safety of the firefighters and the public.

The effectiveness of any emergency response and firefighting in the event of an accident depends on the training the firefighting personnel. Such practices should help firefighters to prepare for any challenges during the rescue process they are likely to encounter when handling the aircraft accidents (Dong, Han & Li, 2014). The pieces of training ought to focus on using different firefighting equipment and knowledge of the nature of fire.

Over the decades now, firefighters have been receiving training from different institutes offering emergency courses. They have been receiving training in areas such as accidents and disaster management. Therefore, Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) is the service which the firefighters offer, ranging from evacuation, response, the relief of passengers and aircraft crew.

The response procedure is objectively designed to handle such emergencies in an airport in the event of an accident such as that of Pan Am Flight 759 (Dong, Han & Li, 2014). The particular requirements of the worldwide airport industry need disasters and contingency of the responders to provide specialized training to ensure adequate response.

The Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting have promoted emergency training in Brayton field, and it requires a complete aircraft model and a 5000 sq ft spill area (Dong, Han, & Li, 2014). The ARFF programs offer guidelines for emergency responders such as such as the military, local and volunteer firefighters, and Department of Defense through tabletop scenarios, tactics, strategic training, and classroom practical’s.

The ARFF classes vary from the mass casualty incident training to 40-hour airport firefighter course (Gann, 2007). However, to be specific, the customized training courses are requirements for the original specifications.

The Airport's regulatory oversight may have an arm of their primary national governance or voluntary under the International Civil Aviation Organizations standards. The emergency response crew can arrive at the scene within the shortest time because of the mass casualty of the aviation. Therefore, they secure the aircraft against all hazards, specifically against fire; increase the chances of survival of the crew on board and passengers.

However, the firefighters in the airport receive advanced training on how to apply firefighting foams, clean agents, and dry chemicals that extinguish burning fuel in the aviation and also near an aircraft to streamline the path for passengers to evacuate and exit dangerous areas. Additionally, in case of fire is encountered in the cabin, the ARFF responders are in charge of extinguishing such fires.

Most parts of large airports undergo regular modifications as a part of the expansion, maintenance, and development. In regards to such changes, the Fire and Rescue services ought to take into account the differences through the review of local emergency response plans and regularly updated (Dong, Han & Li, 2014). The investigation could be periodical or after significant milestones during construction projects or refurbishments.

In the event of a significant and catastrophic aircraft accident such as the one that involved the Pan Am Flight 759, the responders and critical personnel in the emergency should take a complete and robust review of all the policies regarding Fire Rescue and emergency response system according to the standard operating procedures. The investigators must use the findings to amend and modify the standard operating procedures, fire emergency, and rescue services and update an aircraft’s and airport’s emergency response plan to mitigate such a reoccurrence (Dong, Han, & Li, 2014).


Wind shear is one of the most common causes of airplane accidents during takeoffs and landings, and it has remained one of the most significant threats to the pilots. The Pan Am Flight 759 crashed due to a severe wind shear and burst during slight thunderstorms. The need to causation aircrafts against wind shear has caused airports to develop warning systems such as the Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), Wind shear Alerting Set as well as the Wind shear and Turbulence Warning System (WTWS), all of which help the pilots to monitor wind shears.

When a plane crashes, emergency response and firefighting are essential to minimize the impact of crash explosions. The firefighters need to know how to manage the fire based on emergency response procedures which have evolved for over thirty years to meet the changes that come with varying airport requirements. Wind shears are likely to happen, and it is crucial for the detection and warning system to caution pilots and emergency response in case of an accident that will determine the extent of its impacts and how to avoid the reoccurrence.


Advisory Circular. Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department Of Transportation, Washington, D.C. 20590. April 4, 1972. 7p. (1973). Journal of Travel Research, 12(2), 28-28.

Bell, G., & Tsui, K. (1981). A Low-Level Wind Shear Detection System. Weather, 36(2), 42-46.

Dong, J., Han, B., & Li, X. (2014). The Study of Transport Category Aircraft Fire Safety Airworthiness Design. Procedia Engineering, 80, 44-48.

Gann, R. (2007). Guidance for Advanced Fire Suppression in Aircraft. Fire Technology, 44(3), 263-282.

Gonczy, S. (2015). Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airworthiness Certification for Ceramic Matrix Composite Components in Civil Aircraft Systems. MATEC Web of Conferences, 29, 00002

Pan, B. (2013). Accurate, Fast, and Robust Digital Image Correlation. SPIE Newsroom.

Shun, C., Lau, S., & Lee, O. (2003). Terminal Doppler Weather Radar Observation of Atmospheric Flow over Complex Terrain during Tropical Cyclone Passages. Journal of Applied Meteorology, 42(12), 1697-1710

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