By Tim Maroushek
Much of the new technology driving the aviation industry is related to creating fuel efficiencies, particularly in times of rising oil prices. Northwest Airlines has led the way in developing and utilizing a technology that most passengers will never see; it won’t improve the fuel efficiency of an aircraft and it certainly isn’t likely to end up pictured in the local newspaper. However, it serves the airlines’ most important purpose for customers and its employees: safety.
The vacuum anchor for aircraft inspection and maintenance keeps mechanics safe and it practically eliminates the risk of damage to aircraft during maintenance operations.
Maintenance, then and now
Prior to the development of the vacuum anchor, much of the maintenance work performed on aircraft was ground-based. Lift devices or boatswains chairs attached to gantry cranes were needed to reach areas at height to perform certain tasks. However, lift or cherry picker-type devices can damage the aircraft if the equipment is moved in too closely and comes in contact with the fuselage or wing.
In the late 1990s, Northwest Airlines’ corporate safety group, through the Air Transport Association, learned of a new technology that British Aerospace was utilizing. The vacuum technology featured a device that suctioned to the surface of an airplane, through connection to an air supply, creating an anchorage point that allowed mechanics to tie-off using a harness and lanyard to safely conduct inspections and maintenance atop airplanes.
Based on the difficulties of performing maintenance work at height via ground-based methods, Northwest’s corporate safety group and technical operations safety group sought to bring the vacuum technology to the United States. The problem was, the products in development and use in the U.K. were not certified to American fall protection standards. As a result, Northwest officials approached Capital Safety with a proposal: Develop the vacuum anchor, test and certify it to OSHA standards, and Northwest would purchase the equipment from Capital Safety. Capital Safety, under the DBI-SALA brand name at the time, purchased the technology from the British company and began developing it in mid-2000. By late-2000, the company had developed its first generation vacuum anchor, and in early 2001, Northwest ordered its first set of the anchors.
John McMurtry, senior manager of Corporate Health and Safety with Northwest Airlines, says of the product development, “DBI-SALA took a rough product idea and developed it into a marketable piece of equipment. With the testing and engineering support of the DBI name, it became a credible piece of technology for Northwest Airlines to purchase and implement into our maintenance program.”
Vacuum anchor technology
McMurtry and his colleagues quickly found that the vacuum anchor could be used for a variety of maintenance tasks that previously would have required lift equipment. When personnel need to get on the crown of the aircraft, two vacuum anchors could be set up, one on either end of the fuselage, with a horizontal lifeline (HLL) connecting the two. The HLL setup allows two workers to connect to the system, who could then traverse the length of the fuselage without needing to disconnect the anchor and reconnect at another point or move a lift device every few feet. The single pad setup also allows for one mechanic to connect to the crown or wing and perform maintenance or inspection work safely.
The key procedure that Northwest Airlines utilizes the vacuum anchors for is lightning strike inspection and repair. According to McMurtry, “It’s a great tool for our inspection group. When storms come through, the technicians use the anchors on a regular basis, consistently for a few days in a row. They get a lot of hours.”
Northwest also finds the anchors invaluable for scheduled projects such as antenna changes, and as such, has distributed the anchors among its maintenance operations in Boston, Minneapolis, Memphis, Detroit, and Anchorage, among others. The anchors are highly mobile and can easily be transported to other locations based on need. Even the first generation of vacuum anchors, at under 100 pounds, were much easier to handle than a 1,000-pound plus lift.
Benefits of vacuum anchor
Today, several generations later, Northwest Airlines has traded in its old anchors in favor of the self-contained anchor, which was introduced in October 2005. The vacuum anchor features an on-board compressed air bottle that creates the suction power, eliminating the need to connect to a shop air source. Most recently, Capital Safety introduced its third generation self-contained vacuum anchor, the Mobi-Lok. Weighing in at less than 20 pounds, it is 40 percent lighter than previous generations of vacuum anchors. It is rated as a fall arrest vacuum anchor.
At Northwest Airlines, every mechanic is trained in fall protection procedures in general, and the use of the vacuum anchors in particular. Although lift equipment is still used when convenient, for tasks atop the wings and the crown of the airplane, the vacuum anchor is a safer, more efficient tool, according to McMurtry.
“We think it’s a better way to go from a safety standpoint,” McMurtry says. Of course, the anchor also has its efficiency benefits. “The new system is so much easier for a mechanic in terms of efficiency,” McMurtry continues.
When Northwest’s corporate health and safety group first approached the technical operations group with the concept of the vacuum anchor, it had to sell the benefits of the new technology, according to McMurtry. “Now it sells itself,” he says. “They’re asking us when we’re going to get the next round of orders in. You’ve really achieved something when you get people to approach the safety group to purchase new equipment.”
The mobility and ease of use made switching to the vacuum anchor ideal, McMurtry says. But the time savings is also critical. The vacuum anchor allows work to be performed within a radius as far as the lanyard connecting the worker to the anchor extends. The horizontal lifeline setup is even more convenient, providing complete coverage of the fuselage or wing without the need to disconnect and reconnect.
In addition to the anchor’s portable and nonpenetrating benefits, the latest model also incorporates anti-scuff and Skydrol-resistant pads, along with intrinsically safe electronics.
The vacuum anchor is still a relatively young technology, but in the short time it has been around, it has already sparked a mini-revolution in the way mechanics and inspectors perform work atop aircraft.
When it comes to technological advances such as safety equipment, most companies become involved on the back-end when a prototype or first generation model is available. In Northwest’s case, approaching a manufacturer proactively to work on developing a product that saves valuable resources has been a positive experience, one that it would likely repeat.
“We’re fortunate DBI wanted to take the technology on and develop it,” McMurtry says. “Most people wouldn’t think about partnering with a manufacturer, but it’s been such a positive experience and we’re constantly looking at better ways of doing things. Northwest Airlines is always looking to build a better mousetrap, so if there’s an opportunity for us to continue to pioneer safety improvements in our industry, we’ll definitely do it.”
Tim Maroushek is product marketing manager for Systems and Anchors with Capital Safety in Red Wing, MN. For more information, visit www.capitalsafety.com or call (800) 328-6146.