Fighter pilots have a reputation for playing very hard — and there's a bit of a reason for that. They risk their lives every time they're airborne, as the recent, tragic crash of an F/A-18F Super Hornet off Key West shows.
In the event of an emergency, the crew usually tries to eject but, sometimes, that simply isn't possible. The only option is to try and bring back a damaged plane. The problem is, when a plane is damaged, it may be leaking extremely flammable liquids. The military has specially trained firefighters on hand ready to react to these crashes, to put out fires, and to recover the most important things in the plane: the crew. The good news for those brave personnel who race into action, risking their lives to extract crews from crashed planes is that combat airframes are typically built with some type of escape mechanism.
Even the pilot of an A-10 Thunderbolt may need help. Note the "Rescue" label and the warning about the plane's ejection seat. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Giovanni Sims)
For instance, if you get a close look at the exterior of an A-10 cockpit, aside from information about the pilot and crew chief, you'll notice a few other labels. One is prominently marked, "Rescue." This is a mechanism designed to help raise the canopy should the pilot be unable to due to damage or injury.
Even still, you can't just rush in to immediately extract the crew. There are many dangers that need to be addressed. A warfighting jet has extremely flammable fuel coursing through its veins and is typically loaded up with devastating ordnance — any spark could lead to a disaster. Even ejection seats are a potential hazard to consider when extracting crew (the pilot is literally sitting on a rocket when he flies a modern fighter).
The head of the pilot boarding this F-35A Lightning slightly obscures the instructions for operating a rescue handle. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Sutton)
The techniques for getting crews out of different types of planes can vary — what works to extricate an F-15 pilot might not be a good idea for a B-1B crew. Watch the video below to see how ground personnel are trained to rescue the crew of an F-4 Phantom.