Burbank Airport emergency drill puts rescuers, makeup artists to the test

Burbank Airport emergency drill puts rescuers, makeup artists to the test
Volunteers portray injured passengers at Burbank Bob Hope Airport’s disaster drill. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Staging a major airport disaster drill takes months of planning. You need volunteers. You need emergency teams primed to converge on the scene.

So if the timing of a simulated crash at Burbank Bob Hope Airport seemed unfortunate Tuesday given the news of a real plane going down in the French Alps, there was nothing organizers could do about it — except to point out that such tragedies underline why drills are crucial.


The Federal Aviation Administration requires that airports conduct full-scale readiness exercises every three years. The purpose is to assess how prepared the airports are, and to fix glitches in procedures before real emergencies occur.

The drill scenario Tuesday was a complicated one involving two planes, and thus two separate disaster areas. A Boeing 737 was imagined to have come in for a landing erratically, dipping its right wing and clipping another full jet that was pushing back from a terminal in preparation for takeoff. The impact was to have spun the second jet around and torn off its tail.

More than 100 volunteers arrived before sunrise in an open area north of the airport's control tower, where they stood in line to be made up as victims — with grisly gashes and viscous fake blood.

They were mostly a serious bunch, involved in some way with aviation or emergency response services.

The College of the Canyons sent over a big contingent of students in its fire technology, emergency medical technician and nursing programs. There were representatives of the American Red Cross and members of Community Emergency Response Teams. A group trained to respond to crises at the Jet Propulsion Lab included Jim Erickson, project manager for NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers mission.

They came to help and they came to learn. They also expected to enjoy the experience.

They'd been told when they signed up that the early birds would get the most elaborate wounds. The line for faux-injury makeup — which is called moulage — was long well before the 6 a.m. volunteer call time. And few objected when the makeup crew asked to cut holes in their jeans or their shirts in order to let the wounds show through.

Two of the moulage artists do such work regularly for San Diego-based Strategic Operations, a purveyor of "hyper-realistic training environments," which was responsible for staging the accident. The makeup experts applied silicone goo to skin, building raw-looking wounds. They mixed the faux blood in house using dye, corn syrup and water.

"Are you allergic to latex?" they asked volunteers before applying pancake-like ready-made wound patches featuring jutting pieces of bone, shrapnel, screws.

Before the drill got underway, many volunteers posed for macabre group photos or stood around in blood-stained clothes, smiling as they enjoyed complimentary Groundwork coffee and buttery pastries from Porto's. Many wore the navy-blue Bob Hope Airport baseball caps they'd been given as souvenirs for their efforts.

Greg Driotez, a Burbank airport firefighter, snapped shots of his 13-year-old son, Anthony, who had skipped school to participate. He'd been made up with a gaping neck wound, its copious fake blood dripping onto his "I ♥ Miley Cyrus" T-shirt.

Just after 9 a.m., passengers were loaded into a partial fuselage brought in by Strategic Operations to serve as the landing plane in the drill. The company triggered explosions. A cloud of dust shot up. Nearby cars burst into flames. Firefighters arrived with hoses and began removing victims for triage.

On hand to help were firefighters from nearby cities — including Pasadena, Monrovia, San Gabriel, San Marino, Arcadia and Glendale — as well as L.A. County coroners, sheriffs, EMTs and mental health counselors and volunteers from the L.A. Mayor's Crisis Response Team. About 200 responders in all practiced the parts they would play if the scene were real. Official observers took notes on how they did.

Some volunteers, sprawled on tarps, got very much into their roles.


Susan Jekarl, a Community Emergency Response Team-trained stay-at-home mom, belligerently screamed for attention for her leg wound, grabbing other victims' bandages and shouting at one point: "I was in first class! You need to treat me first!" She later said she did it to aid the responders' training, because "they have to get used to total chaos."

The drill was all over in about an hour. There were comment sheets to fill out, followed by a free barbecue for lunch. Everyone loaded up on tri-tip, chicken, sausages, baked beans and potato salad.

A full analysis of the drill would come later, airport officials said. For now, they were off high alert.

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