Ground Safety Affects Us All

There are times when we are doing everything right: crossing in the crosswalk, with the light. We should be able to let our guard down, knowing we are safe, but accidents still happen. Life can find a way to turn things upside down when least expected.

And so it is with aviation. We work in what can be an unforgiving environment each day. Spinning propellers, engine exhaust, heavy equipment, and flammable fuels can pose more risks than we can count. The old cliché “out of sight out of mind” proves most dangerous as it breeds complacency. The more comfortable we become with the danger, the easier and further from our focus it drifts, and the easier it can be to fall into it. Remaining keenly aware of the potential danger in our everyday workplace takes not just focus, but procedures and training in best practices.

Once the airplane lands, and after the engines stop whining, there are areas of risk that require situational awareness at all times. They include marshalling and parking; safety and security of the passengers; servicing of the aircraft; aircraft security; fueling; and maintenance operations. In comparison to an aircraft crash it may sound like small potatoes, but direct costs associated with aircraft damage on the apron and in maintenance facilities are upward of $1.2 billion a year. Factoring in the indirect costs of the aircraft being out of service, increased insurance, temporary replacement, injuries, and other expenses that number can approach $5 billion. The sad reality is that much of it is preventable with training and standardization of best practices.

The most significant risk factors for ground damage occur in towing, ramp movements, ground service equipment, and hangar movements, which include maintenance facilities and operations. One common thread running through all of these risk areas is a lack of training. Mitigating these ground type risks begins with awareness. Some pertinent questions to be considered may be:

  • Who is handling the airplane? Are they properly staffed and trained? Do they train to industry best practices?
  • What is the safety culture of the FBO or maintenance facility? Do they tolerate work-arounds and shortcuts?
  • Do they have the proper type and size of equipment for the task to be accomplished?


Assessing and managing risk is the responsibility of every employee. As a manager, the training of those employees is paramount to a safe operation. Once training is completed, and the employee has demonstrated proficiency at the task, the employee should incorporate a self-assessment as part of every task. Self-assessment is an excellent tool for determining if standards have been met to accomplish a task. You can easily self-assess by asking yourself the following:

  • Am I properly trained?
  • Am I adequately equipped to perform the task?
  • Are the tools or equipment I am about to use in good working order?
  • Do I need assistance?
  • Do I have the appropriate personal protective equipment to keep myself safe?

Best practices

There are some basic best practices that go a long way in reducing ground associated accidents and incidents, the foundation of which is to never ask anyone to do a job or task they have not been trained to do. Keep an open door to questions. Be approachable. Teach others to stop if they are unsure, and embrace a request for assistance. Safety procedures like the chocking of the main gear at all ramp parking situations or while the aircraft is in maintenance sound a bit elementary but this is an area that is subject to being ignored.

Moving aircraft

A ground marshaller should be used as aircraft arrive and depart from parking spots. Wing walkers are especially helpful when pulling or backing an aircraft into or out of a hangar. An industry best practice tells us that we need two plus a tug driver when maneuvering the aircraft on the ramp or removing it from a hangar, and three plus a tug driver when pushing an aircraft into a hangar or tight parking location. Often while in maintenance, mats are used or placed outside the aircraft air stair to prevent grease and soil from being tracked into the aircraft. Be sure to remove them before engine start.

The use of warning cones at wing tips and tail to avoid wing overlap hazards are considered preventative best practices. Confirm with the pilot that the brakes are off before beginning to tow the airplane. A trained person in the cockpit as a brake monitor for heavy aircraft is recommended. If you are not familiar with the aircraft type, and have not been properly trained, do not attempt to move the aircraft, leave the aircraft where it is and seek out someone who is familiar before towing.

Getting around

Many operations use golf carts for getting around the ramp areas quickly. Although you may think it safe, injuries and a fatality have happened with golf carts. You can enhance your safety as well as those around you by always placing the vehicle in neutral or park, turning off the ignition, and setting the parking brake when leaving the golf cart (or any piece of equipment) unattended, even for a minute … every time.

Any of us working at the maintenance facility may occasionally be asked to drive on the ramp. Be sure you have completed a driver’s education course for your airport if your job includes operating a vehicle in ramp areas. Be sure to check the requirements and regulations at your airport.

Five-second rule

One way to check yourself and your situational awareness of danger and risk is to learn to use the five-second rule. The rule: Before you begin any task, ask yourself what harm or damage could result from your actions. This is yet another great self-assessment tool that does not cost time or money but pays priceless benefits.

Today more than ever security of aircraft and access to keys both on the ramp and in maintenance facilities are significant pieces of mitigating risk. Many employees in maintenance facilities know their customers but it is a good practice to be aware of out of the ordinary behavior and unusual questions from anyone.

All of the above can be culminated in an integrated and comprehensive safety program for the entire organization. It may not be possible to eliminate all risk as it is inherent in what we do, and the tools and equipment we use to do it, but documenting procedures establishes expectations and sets standards for operational behavior. Furthermore it provides a framework with which to measure accountability and strive for continued improvement.

Remaining safe on the ground is everyone’s responsibility.

DeborahAnn Cavalcante earned her Masters in Aeronautical Science, with a specialization in Safety Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, FL, and her Bachelor of Science from VA Tech in Business and Risk Management.