By Shannon Marvel
An error within the fire detection system of a SkyWest Airlines plane headed from Fargo to Denver forced the plane to make an emergency landing at the Pierre Regional Airport on April 12.
The pilot contacted the emergency responders who manned Pierre’s Airport Rescue and Fire-Fighting station to declare an emergency.
“They said they had a problem and needed to land. So we initiated ‘Alert Two’,” said ARFF team member Byron Caauwe.
When an Alert Two is initiated, the city sends out fire trucks and ambulances to help support ARFF trucks until the plane lands and the situation is deemed safe.
The next step up is an “Alert Three”, which is an actual crash.
The last time the Pierre Regional Airport initiated an Alert Three was in September of 2012, Caauwe said.
“The Alert Twos kind of come and go. It’s been maybe five years or so since we’ve had one of those, but prior to that it seemed as though we’d have one every six months or so,” Caauwe said, referring to the time period when an air carrier hauling mail to and from Pierre was known to have equipment failures.
“They had some older airplanes. More often than not, the pilot would call us and say, ‘I don’t know if my gear’s down’ or something. Technically, that’s an emergency,” Caauwe explained.
The error on the SkyWest Airlines’ plane from the latest incident indicated to the pilot that one of the engines was on fire when in reality it wasn’t.
“In their fire detection system there was a ‘fire loop’, which is what the mechanic told me,” Caauwe said.
“There is a series of wires and one of them shorted out, which prompted a warning in the cabin that said, ‘Hey, your engine is on fire’,” Caauwe said.
While the engine wasn’t actually on fire, nor was anything wrong with it, the pilot followed proper procedure which was to shut down the engine and declare an emergency.
“When you’re flying along at 300 miles per hour, you can’t roll the window down and check,” Caauwe said.
“A lot of people have been asking me why the plane couldn’t just fly on one engine, and I tell them the plane can certainly do that, but if the pilot doesn’t know why the first engine was lost they probably don’t want to risk losing the other,” Caauwe said.
“That’s when a pilot gets everything to the ground as soon as possible, especially with people on board,” he added.
Typically, the regional jets with United Airlines that fly in and out of Pierre will have just over 50 people aboard the aircraft, along with a flight crew.
Since SkyWest doesn’t operate out of Pierre Regional Airport, the company sent a plane from Denver to Pierre to pick up the stranded passengers later that evening.
By 11 p.m. that night, the passengers were back en route to Denver, Caauwe said.
The incident was a first for Pierre Regional Airport Manager Brian Cowles, at least in his current role.
Cowles stepped into the role just as the winter weather was ramping up in South Dakota.
During weather events that cover outdoor surfaces with ice and then several inches of snow over the course of several hours or days, with high winds to boot, Pierre Regional Airport’s ARFF team stays busy.
The team is composed of six full-time employees and three part-time workers who will work tirelessly to clear the runways of snow and ice so emergency medical flights are able to fly in and out. “Our goal is to keep ahead of it a little bit,” Cowles said.
“The city workers need to basically keep themselves safe and keep the public safe so they stay off the roads when they can and then go out after the fact to clean up. Not us. If we let that happen, we wouldn’t have an airport open for a long time. So we have to try to stay ahead of it and on top of it. It’s just a different aspect of this airport where all the ARFF firefighters are also operations guys,” Cowles said.
“We do all the snow removal, mowing and the high-voltage electrical stuff. It’s definitely different out here, and even with a small crew it definitely gets done,” he said.
Cowles is used to the type of weather that effectively punishes Northern Plains inhabitants during the winter months.
“I lived and worked at an airport in Milwaukee for five years, so the weather’s not that big of a deal,” Cowles said.
Cowles noted that for the time being, he’s just trying to get caught up and familiar with how Pierre’s airport operates since every airport operates differently than the next.
Cowles earned a degree in aviation administration at Utah Valley University.
“After that, I started working in Milwaukee as an operations officer. After that, I transferred to Wichita where I worked for seven years as an operations officer before moving up to manager of operations,” Cowles said.
Cowles then moved to Branson, Mo. where he worked at the airport as operations and maintenance manager.
Cowles is also licensed to fly a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft.
“When I was learning how to fly helicopters, my instructor said it’s akin to being a drummer in a rock and roll band. You’re doing something with both feet and both hands at all times,” Cowles said.
He said he’s looking forward to learning more about how the Pierre airport operates and expects the runways to see a lot more traffic in the warmer spring and summer months.
Crop dusters will use the airport during the growing season, though sprayer traffic varies with each year, Caauwe said.
Cowles is also looking forward to visitors that land in Pierre during pheasant hunting season.
“It’s always interesting to see the types or private airlines that land here during hunting season. From what I’m told, we get some really nice aircrafts landing here,” he said.