COLUMBIA, Mo.– Thick smoke billows out of a fuselage while flames lick and blacken the sides. A firefighter in full gear appears at the door carrying a body. But this is not a plane crash, and the body is a mannequin. It is a training simulation to help firefighters learn to deal with aviation disasters.

Fighting aircraft fires and rescuing survivors from a plane crash are very different from responding to a building fire, says Mark Lee, aircraft rescue firefighting specialist for University of Missouri Extension’s Fire and Rescue Training Institute (MU FRTI).

“It’s a tightly enclosed space with fuel in the wings,” Lee said. “There are biohazards from the onboard lavatory, highly pressurized hydraulic fluid, and at the same time you’re trying to get injured passengers off the plane.”

Lee is program manager for MU FRTI’s Mobile Aircraft Firefighting Trainer (MAFT). The MAFT can simulate fires in the flight deck, galley, cabin, cargo area, wheel assemblies, overhead compartment, wing engines, tail engine and along the exterior of the fuselage. It includes a 900-square-foot fuel spill burn area, a flashover simulator and sacrificial panels that let firefighters train with equipment such as saws, piercing nozzles or forcible extrication tools.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires airports that offer commercial service to have firefighters who are trained and certified to deal with aviation disasters. Firefighters must have completed an initial live-fire drill and then complete an additional live-fire drill every year to maintain their skill, Lee said.

The MAFT was funded by the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division and the FAA to provide training for the FAA’s Central Region—Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

Today the MAFT travels far and wide. After the FAA Central Region annual commitments for aircraft rescue training are completed, the unit can travel to other locations.

“We’ve been from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Pierre, S.D. MU Extension’s fire and rescue training is national and we work with airports across the country, helping them get their certification,” Lee said.

For Silas Springer, a firefighter in Kirksville, Mo., access to FRTI training allows him to learn new equipment and techniques, hone his abilities and gain hands-on practice.

“Firefighting is a continuous school,” Springer said. “You get your basic certifications out of the way at the start of your career and then you’re in school for the rest of your life.”

For more information about MU FRTI, go to

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