Control Tower tests emergency egress system

  • Published
  • By Wayne Crenshaw
  • 78 ABW/PA
Airman 1st Class Shantelle Small stood on the catwalk outside the Robins control tower and studied the device that would soon take her on a seven-story drop to the ground.

She didn't like what she saw.

"Oh my God," she said. "That does not look fun at all."

Small was looking at a Baker Life Chute, a device intended to help people escape burning buildings when they can't use stairs. Small is an air traffic control apprentice, and like everyone else who works in the tower, she has to use the chute at least once each year as training in the event it is ever needed in a real emergency. The exercise on Oct. 1 was her first time using the chute, along with several of her co-workers.

The chute works like a long, nylon-mesh tube sock. After it is dropped to the ground, firefighters hook it to their truck and back up some so that it creates an angle like a playground slide. If necessary, it can also be used without being hooked up to anything at the bottom.

The user climbs in from the top, feet first, and starts sliding down. The rate of decent can be slowed by spreading the feet. People can either go down very slow or very fast, but a fast decent can create a rope-burn effect and possibly a twisted ankle if a boot gets caught in the nylon.

Robert Harvey, a watch supervisor in the tower, has gone down the chute many times. He was on the catwalk giving tips to those who were trying it for the first time. He tried to reassure Small.

"Once you do it, you will probably want to come back up and do it again," he told her. "I assure you I won't," she replied.

But she put her reservations aside, got in and did it.

"It was easier than I thought it would be," she said after getting to the ground. "But I don't want to do it again."

Several of the Airmen, however, did come back up and do it again. Most thought it was pretty fun. "Once you get in and start moving, you realize it's not too bad," said Airman Scott Decker, also an air traffic control apprentice.

Some of the control tower workers did it on Oct. 1 and others on Oct. 2. One of those who went down on the second day was Senior Master Sgt. Scott McClouth, the tower chief controller.

He has done the training many times in the past, but this was his first time doing it a Robins. He said it's not nearly as scary as it might look.

"In general, air traffic controllers love to do it," he said.

The chutes are a common egress method in Air Force control towers, he said. The chutes can be used to escape from any tall building, and one model can be deployed with a helicopter. The chute used at the Robins control tower is mounted there permanently, with weather protection. In a fire, controllers would come out on the catwalk and unfurl it to the ground while the fire department is en route.

The chute has a tinsel strength of 84,000 pounds, and strands at the top are sent off periodically for strength testing.

Although only one person at a time was using it in this training, in a real emergency people can get it in it one right after another.

"It's really a safe way to get out of a building," McClouth said.