Safety Is As Safety Does

May 1, 2002
Ruminations from the Ramp

Safety Is As Safety Does

Live aircraft ramps are exciting, as well as dangerous, writes Tony Vasko as he discusses the safety lapses most common to those who operate in and around ground support equipment

By Tony Vasko

May 2002

Ever since I saw a picture of the China Clipper, I have been a certified airplane nut. At the age of 14, I became a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol Squadron that met at the Manhattan School of Aviation Trades. When I first set foot on a live aircraft ramp back in 1948, it was a moment of great emotion for me. We had a drill at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, NY (NAS New York) that was home to a large contingent of World War II Navy Hellcat fighters, Avenger torpedo bombers, and Catalina patrol planes flown by the Naval Air Reserve, as well as a group of bent-wing Corsairs proudly flown by the Marine Corps - Air Reserve. Also resident was a contingent of the NY Air National Guard flying A26 Invaders and the Air Force Air Reserve flying Beech T7 and T11. I returned to Floyd Bennett on my own every weekend and with all those varied types of equipment, it would have been an easy place to get killed.

Whirling propellers were the biggest hazard. They still are and I keep some ingrained habits when I am around them — like not walking through a propeller, even when it's static. I had one close call some years later when coming out of a DC-4 hydraulic hellhole where I had been adjusting the autopilot pressure. The Number 3 engine was running and I was a little addled by the noise. The hellhole was in the right lower side of the fuselage about even with the wing's leading edge. I turned forward and took one step. One more would have been too much. My knees still get weak when I contemplate it.

The Air Guard folks realized that we were a hazard to them too. I got an indoctrination in ramp safety from a grizzled Captain who had flown P47s in the "Big One." He was very explicit about respecting props and graphic in his description of what happened if you were not. One major point he made was that the painted line between the safe building and the live aircraft ramp was something that should be a warning call to everyone who crosses it — once crossed, danger came at you from 360 degrees.

Busy aircraft ramps and departure gates have been described as one of the most dangerous places in the world. Fuelers, caterers, baggage and freight vehicles all have their own agenda. Add the maintenance vans, high lifts, tugs, and pickups — throw in the airplanes — and you have an environment that requires a swivel head to keep track of everything.

Excessive speed on the ramp is probably one of the biggest causes of accidents as is the lack of attention on the part of the driver. Together, they can be a real killer. I had to investigate a case involving a string of baggage carts that were being towed. Witnesses said the driver was really roaring and the carts looked like they were in a conga line — violently snaking back and forth. Inevitably, a tow hitch failed and the freed cart went off on its own at high speed. The tow tongue caught in a pavement joint and the cart did a flip and went end over end, spewing passengers' luggage before it ended in the side of an aircraft.

It was a blessing no one was in the way. The driver reported that he was going at a normal rate of speed and it was the ground equipment crew's fault that they had a bad tow hitch on the preceding cart. The fact that it somersaulted several times was only incidental and no proof that it was going fast.

Driving a fuel tender away while the hose is still attached to the airplane has occurred often enough that they have installed frangible fittings on most aircraft. Theoretically, the coupling breaks off. In practice, it sometimes does not and you can end up with a yard of plumbing rudely extracted from the wing. Even if it does break off as advertised, you still have the job of replacing an expensive piece of aircraft hardware.

Pulling or driving a Ground Power Unit away with the electrical lead still attached to the airplane has been done more times than I care to mention. Same goes for air starters or Huffers. They have a big coupling that does not let go just because the unit is moving away. The upsetting result is a driver who gets chastised, the immediate supervisor who gets it noted at the annual review, and the manager who has to explain it to the vice president. From experience, I can say that you cannot explain to a VP why someone would drive away with the unit still attached to an aircraft. Admittedly, it is not acceptable at any time and if it happens with any frequency, it is a sign that management is accepting an unsafe environment.

Lack of training on equipment is another big problem. I can remember when the loaders for the B747 baggage were delivered. Getting two different makes were only part of the problem. The culture shock of going from maintaining simple belt loaders to sophisticated ones that included, in those early models, self-leveling and alignment, left the GSE mechanics in a daze. They coped but had to endure the unkind cuts of upper management who had, after all, bought the "very best equipment" only to have it mishandled by what they regarded as a set of fools. It never crossed their minds to possibly train those folks on the equipment to at least give them a fighting chance.

Watching a loader operator learn "on-the-job" sounds easy until you are the rampie trying to shove a loaded LD3 onto it — only to have it kicked back at you because the operator is still learning.

In 48 years of employment, I never had to witness anyone being killed or even seriously hurt at work. I am very happy that nothing like that happened while I was a manager or director in charge of an operation. When I spoke to my foremen and supervisors about safety, I always made one threat. It was that if anyone got killed in a work accident, that unfortunate's supervisor would have to go with me when we informed the new widow and I meant it, too.

Today, many of the primitive conditions I experienced on the ramp are gone. OSHA fines, the high cost of injuries, as well as common sense suggest that we must do better. I hope you work for a company that recognizes this, too.