Vigilance required to ensure ramp safety

 - September 20, 2006, 5:11 AM

Ramp accidents and incidents continue to plague the aviation industry, but the good news is that FBOs, charter operators and flight departments are taking ramp safety more seriously. Tools such as the National Air Transportation Association’s (NATA’s) Safety 1st training program and Safety Management System (SMS) can help prevent ramp incidents, which has a beneficial effect on insurance cost and availability and employee morale.

A search through the FAA’s accident and incident database for ramp-related mishaps involving business aircraft showed a surprising number of incidents, many resulting in damage and a few in which the ground crew wing-walked yet nonetheless directed pilots into parking areas and other aircraft or trucks. Two incidents involved pilots taxiing over mobile helicopter landing platforms, which raises the question of whether those platforms should be marked prominently so pilots can see them easily.

Taxiing off the taxiway onto something that looks like a taxiway can increase the chance of an accident. In one instance, a pilot got into trouble when he tried to fix the problem by turning around. Another pilot recognized the error early enough to shut down the engines and wait for help instead of trying to turn around.

An especially dangerous situation is when a line worker leaves the engine running while stepping off a piece of equipment, said Amy Koranda, NATA’s director of safety management. “We’ve had folks killed getting off equipment and leaving it running,” she said. “It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. Turn off any equipment before you get off it.”

One of the worst recent ramp accidents happened on Jan. 16, 2006, at El Paso International Airport in Texas. Pilots preparing to fly a Continental Airlines Boeing 737 saw what appeared to be an oil leak in the right engine. They contacted the airline, which arranged for a local maintenance contractor to look at the problem. Three mechanics arrived to troubleshoot and asked the captain to run the engine while they watched it through the open cowls. With one mechanic standing on each side of the engine and another in front, the captain ran the engine at idle power.

One of the mechanics then asked the captain via the ground intercom to run the engine at 70-percent power. About 90 seconds later, according to the NTSB preliminary report, “the captain reported sensing a slight buffeting that rapidly increased in intensity followed by a compressor stall.” He immediately retarded power and the first officer shut off fuel flow to the right engine.

The mechanic standing on the outboard side of the right engine had been sucked into the engine during the 70-percent-power runup and was killed. The NTSB has not issued the final report on this accident.

NATA’s Safety 1st line-service safety program is now six years old, and about 750 companies participate. Since training, testing and certification were added four years ago, 9,000 people have been certified. The new Safety Management System is one year old and has 75 members.

“Our safety programs do have an impact,” Koranda said. Insurance underwriter USAIG told Koranda that it has seen “tangible results” of the programs, among them reductions in damage–especially vehicle-related damage–in the hangar and ramp environment. “They think the improvement in safety and the corresponding reduction in insurance claims has eased insurance market conditions in deductibles and pricing,” she added.

While it’s hard to quantify the effect on insurance rates, Koranda said the cost of general aviation workers’ compensation insurance claims has dropped substantially during the past three years. The benefits aren’t just financial, but include fewer injuries, less severity when an injury does occur, fewer lost workdays and improved morale.

The safety management system adds two more legs to what Koranda views as the three-legged stool of ground safety: training, safety management and best practices. Safety 1st covers the training leg and SMS adds the other two legs by helping companies build a safety culture that involves everyone from the CEO to the person who sweeps the hangar floor and promoting improved procedures.

The core of SMS is “looking at what’s happening,” Koranda said, “evaluating what caused it and putting procedures and policies in place to prevent it from happening again.” Even companies with strong safety cultures can ignore problems that don’t cause injuries or bent metal, she explained. “We teach them how to evaluate that; don’t ignore it just because it didn’t bend metal. [Ask] ‘Where did we go wrong and what could we do better?’ Put in procedures and policies so that metal doesn’t get bent the next time around.”

The program involves teaching companies how to set up an SMS, including how to evaluate incidents and near-misses using root-cause analysis and then sharing the information inside the company and with other participants.

“Our SMS folks said they are so much more aware of what’s happening because they evaluate incidents that almost happened. In the past, folks were having trouble getting insurance. This is making the difference between getting insurance or not, but there are so many things that affect insurance. I can’t say they will definitely see an insurance cost reduction.”

Information about Safety 1st and SMS is available at www. An example of an SMS root-cause dissection is available in the March 2006 eToolkit SMS newsletter at

Safety 1st for ground workers costs $300 (basic package) to $500 (deluxe) plus $100 per person for training, testing and certification. For NATA members, the SMS ground program is $600 for as many as 50 employees; $1,200 for 51 to 150; and $1,800 for more than 150 employees, plus annual renewal fees of 50 percent of the program fee. NATA launched an SMS for charter program, so Part 135 operators can learn and share incident experiences and best practices. Anyone can read material on NATA’s Safety 1st Web site.

NBAA provides ground worker safety information at its public Web site, in the “Powered Industrial Vehicles” section. NBAA and the Flight Safety Foundation jointly produced a CD-ROM titled Aircraft Towing Best Practices.

The FAA and Air Transport Association are holding a maintenance and ramp safety human factors meeting September 6 and 7 in Orlando, Fla. (See www.airlines. org/os/d.aspz?nid=9712.)

Plane Sights Tries To Counter ‘Ramp Rash’

Ramp accidents happen because someone doesn’t see something, whether it’s an airplane or a truck or a fixed stanchion, pole or building. Michael Moore, a former FBO supervisor and founder of a Toronto, Canada, company called Redfab, has seen plenty of ramp rash firsthand and decided there must be a better way of preventing such accidents than simply telling people to avoid them.

“You can train people so that they have almost no accidents,” he said, “but there still are accidents, even if you have two people walking the wing. It’s hard to say that they will be strategically placed to watch all parts of the airplane.”

To research the need for a ramp-rash prevention product, Moore looked through many FBO incident reports and categorized the causes. Or as he put it, he looked into “why staff…smashed up the airplanes.”

The most common cause, he found, was people taxiing or driving too fast and not being able to see what they ran into. “Wings have a thin profile,” he noted. And being mostly white, they can be difficult to see, especially when the airplane is moving from the bright sunshine into a dark hangar or during snow showers. The research, he added, “gave me firsthand knowledge about how pilots feel about having their airplanes smashed up.”

Research in hand, Moore designed Plane Sights, a product that is installed on vulnerable areas such as wingtips, propellers and noses to help make these areas easier to spot. At night, Plane Sights products are super bright, reflecting headlight and taxi/landing light in a distinctive pattern. He claims that “a substantial number” of the accidents he researched could have been prevented if the operators had been using his covers.

Incidents in the FAA database:

• A Beechjet whose pilot ran into another airplane because he was not watching the ground crew that was trying to signal him to stop.

• A driver intending to pick up passengers was waving to his son and hit the airplane because he was distracted.

• A Cessna Conquest smacked into a Twin Commander while the Conquest pilot was trying to make a 180-degree turn on a crowded ramp. The Conquest pilot said that the brakes failed and the brake pedal had gone to the floor.

• A King Air pilot was setting the GPS and didn’t notice that he was taxiing into a Cessna 421 until it was too late.

• The pilot of a Pilatus PC-12 discovered that yellow lines can be dangerous when he followed one right into the wing of a Cessna Citation.

• A Boeing 727 flight crew damaged two Cessnas while powering up the engines and trying to unchock the 727’s nosewheel during a tight turn.

• Carefully following the follow-me truck, a King Air pilot taxied a wingtip into a Pilatus PC-12’s propeller. The truck driver had sped ahead so he could park and get out with wands to direct the King Air, but by then it was too late.