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O’Hare to get $7.4 million simulator for superjumbo jet rescues

In this photo provided by passenger Jose Castillo, fellow passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at O'Hare International Airport in October 2016. Pilots on Flight 383 bound for Miami reported an engine-related mechanical issue, according to an airline spokeswoman. | Jose Castillo/Distributed by the Associated Press

O’Hare Airport will soon be home to one of the world’s most sophisticated firefighter training sites, thanks to a $7.4 million simulator that will prepare first-responders for rescues aboard superjumbo jets.

On Oct. 28, 2016, an engine fire broke out on an American Airlines Boeing 767 hurtling down an O’Hare runway at 154 m.p.h. just seconds before take-off.

The harrowing incident forced 170 passengers and crew members to exit on inflatable slides as flames and smoke poured from the aircraft. One person was seriously injured; 20 suffered minor injuries.

Now, the city is taking steps to better prepare firefighters for those types of rescues aboard superjumbo jets, like the Airbus 380 that British Airways plans to debut next spring on its daily service to London.

The newly-signed contract bankrolled by airline revenues calls for Simulation Live Fire Training Solutions, Inc. to build a new “triple-deck, large-frame aircraft simulator” based on the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. The simulator and accompanying software will include what City Hall calls the “only rotating cabin in the world engineered to simulate” a jet broken in pieces.

Assistant Deputy Fire Commissioner Tim Sampey, who oversees fire rescue operations at O’Hare and Midway, said the rotating cabin feature was tailor-made to duplicate the July 1989 crash of a United Airlines jet in Sioux City, Iowa that killed 111 passengers and crew members, but miraculously left 185 survivors.

“The plane was broken into several pieces. … People who would normally be seated in the upright position were actually seated on an angle, which made rescue difficult,” Sampey said.

“This simulator give us the ability to put it at a 15-to-20 degree angle, which gives it almost a sidewards approach. … We have smoke generators being built into this as well as sound equipment that can simulate burning material, people screaming. We can put smoke where we’d like to put smoke, fire where we’d like to put fire. Different levels. It gives us … variables from the smallest scenario to the largest.”

Currently, Fire Department simulators at O’Hare are “based off a narrow-body aircraft” with only one aisle, Sampey said.

The new, 70-foot-long simulator will better prepare firefighters for complicated rescues aboard two-aisle aircraft that are nearly as long as a football field.

“It also gives us the ability to train on double-decker or triple-decker aircrafts…It gives us a significant, greater look at the potential, especially because it’s a greater potential loss of life,” Sampey said.

The harrowing rescue aboard American Airlines Flight 383 occurred after a disk in the right engine broke into four pieces.

Passengers told the National Transportation Safety Board they climbed over seats and pleaded with flight attendants to open the emergency doors.

They reported moving to one side of the aircraft as the cabin filled with heavy black smoke and watching helplessly as flames coming from the right wing cracked windows on that side of the aircraft.

On Monday, Sampey characterized that October rescue as complicated and “really hairy.” But he argued that the “complete failure of the Stage 2 turbine that tore through the wing of the aircraft and essentially the fuel tank” was deftly handled by Chicago firefighters.

“It was fully loaded because it was just taking off. And you had pouring jet fuel coming out of the wing, which we call a three-dimensional fire. Not only did you have a fire. You had a fire being fed by a huge hole in the gas tank that was burning,” Sampey said.

“The aircraft is only meant to keep the flames out for about three minutes. It became a very hairy situation.”

Sampey noted that FAA regulations require the first Fire Department rescue unit “to get to the mid-point of the farthest runway in three minutes or less.”

He added: “They made it there in under the time they were supposed to make it and they did a great job.”