Safe ground operations require cooperative effort

 - September 20, 2006, 1:42 PM

The passengers have been whisked away in their limos; shutdown checklists are complete; the fuel order is booked for tomorrow’s departure; and the crew car is idling out front. It’s a beautiful day and the golf course beckons. So it’s off with the necktie and onto the freeway, right?

Not so fast. There’s a growing movement to prevail upon aircrews to throttle back on those quick post-flight departures and add a few items to their list of responsibilities once the engines have spooled down. Likewise, pilots are also finding incentive to get up earlier the next day and arrive at the airport in time to supervise positioning and other preflight ground operations. Insurance companies are on board, as are FBO chains, independents and the FBO trade organization, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA).

In fact, a large part of the motivation for keeping pilots in the aircraft custodial loop has come from the insurance industry. As long ago as 2002, NATA addressed the issue of pilots and FBOs working as partners to help curtail ground damage. The hope was that business aviation across the board would eventually benefit from lower insurance premiums.

The goal of a lower insurance bill has proved elusive, but it could be argued that prices would be higher without the safety initiative. Back then, NATA president James Coyne said, “It’s got to be a two-way street. I think a lot of pilots, when they taxi back after landing, switch their brains off [along with the engines]. If we’re going to lick this insurance challenge–and it’s just as big a challenge for the operators as it is for the FBOs–we have got to work on this problem together as a team. I’d like to see the pilots stick around while the airplane is being moved and help out. You’ve still got a multi-million-dollar asset there–it’s your asset. It would be much better, to me, if pilots realized they are partners with the FBO.”

It’s also true that, at some locations, it just isn’t practical for the crew–partners or not–to wait around to supervise any and all ground movement. For example, at Westchester County Avitat, at White Plains (N.Y.) Airport, the ramp configuration and levels of traffic are such that an airplane might be parked on arrival conveniently for passengers to disembark, then towed immediately to make room for more incoming jets, fueled much later in the wee hours of the morning to fit into a busy 24/7 schedule, then repositioned for the morning getaway by the night shift hours before the sun comes up.

In between, the line crew team might need to reposition the aircraft a couple more times to make room for other aircraft movements. Unless they’re camping out in the crew lounge, it would be impossible for an aircrew to be on top of the line personnel every time they touched the airplane.

But most places aren’t like that, and all a crew needs to do is wait a few minutes for the fuel truck and/or tug to arrive or ask that the line crew wait until they can be there in the morning before fueling or moving the airplane. At most FBOs, the appreciation for having another two sets of expert eyes to monitor the activity overrides any inconvenience that might come as a result of such requests.

Teamwork Begins Early

So where does the cooperative effort start? When taxiing into the FBO’s ramp area, pilots can help by switching to the Unicom frequency to talk with marshallers or, if the FBO has one, a ramp controller. Here’s one area where FBOs can help the process. Some post the Unicom frequency prominently on large signs at the entrance to the ramp, on the side of the building, on the ramp vehicles and on fuel trucks– anywhere the cockpit crew might see it. It’s not always practical or safe for a pilot–even the second-in-command–to stick a head down to look up the frequency on the approach chart or the airport facilities directory.

Being able to talk to the line crew facilitates parking and positioning for ground transportation, should the airport permit vehicles on the ramp. (Since 9/11, a lot of airports have curtailed the practice–a policy change that insurance companies have applauded for decreasing the incidence of vehicle-damaged aircraft.)

Once the engines are shut down and the wheels have been chocked, the flight crew can help by ensuring the line crew use traffic cones to surround the airplane. That’s one practice that the NATA Safety Management System program has promoted.

An insurance executive once asked an FBO general manager why one aircraft was “coned” and the others were not. He replied that the aircraft operator insisted that he place the cones. The insurance man’s response was to point out to the general manager that if one of the unconed aircraft were damaged, he’d have a tough time reconciling the fact that coning was safe practice for one but not all of the aircraft on his ramp.

If pilots aren’t familiar with the towing procedures for their aircraft, NATA believes strongly that they ought to learn before their next flight. Proper procedures for aircraft towing, model by model, are a large part of the NATA Safety First curriculum.

Still, line technicians are human and subject to error brought on by distraction and fatigue. A second (and third) expert overseeing the towing process is a valuable addition, especially if the aircraft has a nosewheel pin that needs to be removed for towing and then replaced.

After the tug is mated to the nosewheel, it behooves the crew to ensure that the FBO has sufficient staff to supply wingwalkers. Here’s a time when the FBO line chief might appreciate that the pilots have stuck around. When the ramp is hopping, it can be tough to lasso a pair of linemen to watch wingtips during towing. The same is true for riding brakes. Most aircraft manufacturers recommend that a trained person be on the brakes during towing. If that person has striped epaulets on his or her shoulders, so much the better.

Service Oversight

Obvious as it might sound, the first thing to inspect in the fueling process is whether the sign on the truck reads jet-A or 100LL avgas. As long as ramps accommodate aircraft with different diets, the potential is there for misfueling. Training and dedicated fuel hose nozzles help, but as the old saying goes, “It’s impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are much too ingenious.” AirBP has recently mounted a campaign to raise awareness of the potential for misfueling by providing accounts of actual mistakes.

Coyne and other officials at NATA agree that an FBO should not be offended by pilots’ asking to see reports on the latest quality-control checks and when filters were last changed. Every load of fuel from a supplier should be checked for a specific gravity and a number of other quality issues. In addition, fuel trucks ought to be checked daily. Most corporate flight departments have protocols for pilots to check up on an FBO’s fuel quality control, but it’s probably safe to say that most do not follow through consistently.

Overall, if pilots are on hand there is less chance that something will slip through the cracks. The error avoided could be as simple as stocking the wrong vintage of Chardonnay, but it could also involve something as serious as failing to remove tape from a static port after a wash job or forgetting to replace the nosewheel pin after towing. The FBO trade group and insurance companies agree that pilots are teammates in the ground-service game, and they can’t make the plays if they’re not on the field.