When I was an Air Force Airfield Manager in Germany the top three stories of our tower were so small that a fire in the base would have prevented the crew from using the stairs or elevator. They would have been trapped. Fortunately, the Air Force has emergency escape systems consisting of harnesses, ropes, and other apparatus that can be clipped onto the outside railing. In the event of a fire the staff would don harnesses and lower themselves to safety. Unfortunately, during my time there from 1988-91 the Air Force supply system was abysmal about getting items like this to overseas bases. The operative word: abysmal.
Our Air Traffic Control unit had been written up during an inspection for not having one of these emergency escape devices. They ordered it, and then every quarter reported on the status of the shipment. It was a cross between a nightmare and a Dilbert comic: “We ordered it, but the supply office said they never received the order.” Next quarter, “Supply said they shipped it, but we never received it.” This went on for nearly two years.
Fortunately for my friends in the tower, I stumbled across what I thought was an ideal substitute during a visit to the local defense supply “reutilization” office. I took the item and put it in an official looking package addressed to the control tower chief. After putting “Rush Order – ATC Emergency Escape Device” on the outside I dropped it at the building mail station and had one of my crew call the tower about an “important shipment” that had just been delivered.
When the tower chief got the package back to his office he opened one end, looked in, and saw the mass of webbing and metal clips that he expected to see. My practical joke should have ended there, but the excited chief put the package aside and scheduled a training session for his entire staff for the next week.
When his team gathered he began to describe how in an emergency they would each don a harness, attach the ropes to the outside railing, and then clip themselves onto the rope to lower themselves to safety. The airman who had volunteered to demonstrate the system as part of the class started poking around in the package. Something looked fishy to him. He finally pulled it out and exclaimed, “No way—this is a parachute!”
After they tracked the joke back to me it was never safe for me to do an airport inspection when there was snow on the tower platform. Too tempting to pelt me from six stories up. So much for trying to do my fellow airmen a favor. Sheesh!