Aircraft Tugs and Safety: 12 Important Protocols to Help Prevent Accidents

The International Air Transportation Association has stated that nearly 87 percent of accidents that happen on a ramp occur during an aircraft pushback. Operating an aircraft tug safely involves having the proper protocols in place in order to prevent any potential accidents, injuries or fatalities.

While the following is not an exhaustive list, it’s a good jumping-off point for establishing mandatory practices, protocols and checklists for safely and securely using aircraft tugs.

  1. Train. Safe use of any type of equipment involves training. It’s extremely important that you require all employees to go through thorough, on-the-job education and training. It’s also a good idea to require that your employees be able to pass a proficiency test on all aircraft that they’ll be towing before they actually operate any aircraft tugs. The greatest deterrent of accidents is well-trained and educated employees.
  1. Inspect. Aircraft tugs, towbars and any other equipment used in the process of a pushback or tow should always be inspected prior to each shift to ensure that they’re in working order. In addition to a thorough inspection, any potential hazards should be identified, eliminated, controlled and documented in order to minimize risk.
  1. Check Lighting. If you can, avoid towing aircraft in the dark. If this is unavoidable, make sure that the airplane and runway are thoroughly lit before beginning an aircraft pushback.
  1. Test Radio System. Before beginning an airplane pushback or tow, the radio system should be tested to ensure that personnel will be able to communicate during the transport. The aircraft tug operator will need to be in constant communication with both the cockpit observer and the air traffic controllers during the entire process.
  1. Secure Aircraft. Make sure that all aircraft doors are closed, ladders are retracted or removed, and landing gear is fully down and locked before beginning. After attaching the towbar to the plane, you should also make sure that the towbar is properly connected to the landing gear and the tug before moving.
  1. Turn Off Engines. Make certain that the aircraft’s engines aren’t running – an airplane should not be towed while the engines are running.
  1. Assign a Trained Person to the Pilot’s Seat. There should always be a trained person in the pilot’s seat to operate the plane’s brakes if needed, to observe from the cockpit and to warn the aircraft tug operator of any potential issues. Ensure that the cockpit observer does not press the brakes unless absolutely necessary.
  1. Position Wing Walkers. Wing walkers should be stationed at each wingtip to ensure there’s enough room to clear any nearby objects, as well as to signal to the aircraft tug tractor operator if there isn’t. During an aircraft pushback or when the need arises to turn sharply, you should also assign a tail walker.
  1. Verify Clearance. Before crossing a taxiway or runway, you should always verify that the cockpit observer gets clearance from the control tower and communicates it to the aircraft tug operator. An aircraft should never be towed without advance approval from the control tower.
  1. Go Slow. Taking your time and going at a steady speed will allow you to keep an eye on your fellow drivers, keep control of maneuverability and give you ample time to process how much space you have when going forward or backward on the runway. The towing speed should never exceed that of walking team members.
  1. Avoid Extreme Turns. While aircraft tugs and towbarless tugs have features to prevent damage to your aircraft tractor and plane, they’re not capable of preventing everything. By taking extremely sharp turns, the towbar can wind up hitting the back of the pushback tractor, causing quite a bit of damage both internally and externally. If you have to take a sharp turn, consider first whether you have enough clearance to do so and whether your aircraft tug even has the needed maneuverability.
  1. Park the Plane Securely. Before disconnecting the aircraft from the aircraft tug, set the airplane’s brakes and place wheel chocks to ensure the plane doesn’t move.

For more complete safety procedures regarding the operation of aircraft tugs, please refer to the FAA guidelines.

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