Safety From the Ground Up

23 August 2009 (Last Updated August 23rd, 2009 18:30)

Safety should start from the ground up in any air operation. Our guest columnist retired Air Commodore Azfar A Khan, who served in the Pakistan Air Force for 31 years, tells us why.

Safety From the Ground Up

Safety should be maintained by every air force at its highest level. Whether it is the preparation of an aircraft or maintenance of ground support equipment, safety is paramount.

Statistics show that most air force accidents, whether they take place in the air or on the ground, are the result of human error. The pilot is known to be behind 53% of accidents, while improper maintenance stands for 8%. Inadequate design also plays a significant role in an event. For example, in early aircraft many switches that performed different functions looked very similar, confusing the pilot. These days, the aircraft is designed so that the pilot does not mix up the controls.

There is a saying – 'little things mean a lot' – that contains a lot of wisdom. It has generally been observed that staff can have a tendency to overlook small things which, with the passage of time, grow into large issues and ultimately become uncontrollable. The best policy would be to report and investigate each and every incident, however small, to the authorities.

So what are the things to be aware of when taking notice of safety? Here are five areas of utmost importance to air force personnel.

1. Disregard for the procedures

Every air force has procedures to be followed by its staff. The procedures are standardised methods for carrying out certain jobs. Many problems surface due to flagrant disregard for these procedures. Staff should have a thorough knowledge of the procedures and should be trained to use them. The use of any shortcuts should be discouraged.

"Statistics show that most air force accidents, whether they take place in the air or on the ground, are a result of human error."

It has been observed that, at some of the bases, the procedures are kept under lock and key which denies the very purpose of having them. People should have easy access to safety procedure guidelines.

During my 31 years of service in the air force, I came across numerous instances where a catastrophe could have been averted if proper procedures were followed. One such catastrophe happened at a mobile radar that was installed near an air force base. While the antenna of this radar was being raised with the help of a crane, a young technical officer was standing below the antenna and passing instructions to the staff. Suddenly, the guy wire gave way and the heavy antenna dropped on the officer, killing him on the spot. Procedure dictated that nobody come nearer to the crane than a specified safe distance. Had the procedure been followed by the said officer, the fatality would not have occurred.

2. Inappropriate training

Training plays an important role on the ground as well as in the air. It generates a lot of confidence and makes a huge difference towards reducing or controlling human error. An annual training programme should be prepared well in advance to impart training to the personnel on safety. The syllabus contains various topics regarding air and ground safety.

"Small things, with the passage of time, grow into large issues and ultimately become uncontrollable."

To preclude the occurrence of any accident, vigorous training is a must. The importance of training can be seen by visualising for a moment what would be the consequences if an air traffic controller wasn't trained to handle emergencies, or an aircraft caught fire on the ground but the technicians did not know which fire extinguisher was required for each type of fire.

In a modern air force training on flight simulators plays a crucial role. It allows the pilots to acquire proficiency without exposing them to the perils of actual flight. Using flight simulators is an effective way of enhancing the pilot training programme. It's a costly proposition (each costing around $10m), yet it's worth it. The merits of training are highlighted by tragic accidents. A C-130 aircraft crash-landed after undershooting the runway by about 10m – as a result, one of the main landing gears got detached and another three were damaged. Vigorous simulator training would have been instrumental in avoiding this mishap.

3. Indifference towards good work practices

If we look at the maintenance setup of any air force we come across good and bad work practices. It should be our aim to watch out for the bad work practices, as in doing so we'll be contributing towards the safety of the aircraft and the equipment.

I witnessed an example of this during the overhaul of a fighter aircraft, when the cable harnesses of the aircraft were being examined for their suitability some naked wires were observed that could touch such other naked wires or even the body of the aircraft. It was a case of utter disregard to good maintenance practices.

"Many problems surface due to flagrant disregard of procedures."

During cold December nights, when a job was required to be carried out on a
C-130 aircraft that was parked at a distance of 500m from the shop, the technicians used to bring the required tools in their overall pockets to carry out the maintenance. If, by chance, any of the important tools were missing, these technicians used to resort to short-cuts and using improper tools. For example, they would use a flathead instead of a Philips-head screwdriver to open or tighten a screw. By using an
improper screw driver the screws may not be tightened properly, the result being another safety hazard.

4. Using spares obtained from sources other than the OEM

To avoid a flight safety hazard it should be ensured that only the spares received from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) are used. Aircraft ccidents have occurred due to the use of locally made hoses that burst during flight, potentially resulting in an accident. The aircraft and the pilot were both lost in one such case during my time in the sir force.

5.Handling of the aircraft and its allied equipment

The handling of an aircraft and its allied equipment plays an important role on the ground and as well as in the air as far as safety is concerned. Hence, tight control on the use of ground equipment is a must.

Another example takes place during a tea break at a flight line. A driver that wasn't authorised to drive a specialised vehicle got hold of the keys and started driving the vehicle out of curiosity. When he wanted to stop it he couldn't and hit an F-16 parked nearby. A colossal amount was spent on the repair of the expensive aircraft.

At another air force base, wild boars used to cross the runway despite the presence of barbed wire. But, before the management could arrive at a decision as to whose responsibility it was to build a wall, one of the F-16s got hit by a passing boar. The damage was so huge that the whole aircraft had to be written off. The cost of the planned wall (which was eventually constructed after the loss of the precious F-16) was not even a fraction of the cost of the aircraft. The moral of the story is that if you observe a safety hazard, take corrective action without wasting any time.

As safety in the air starts on the ground, maximum attention should be focused towards achieving safety while working on the ground. By adhering to procedure, taking training seriously, adopting best work practices, using only spares obtained from the OEMs, and handling aircraft and their allied equipment with due care we can create a safe environment and produce a safety-minded workforce. This way, we can save aircraft, equipment and most importantly precious human lives from being wasted.