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


The flightline of any airport is a bustling place full of machinery and personnel working together in harmony. At any given moment on the flightline, ground personnel may be towing aircraft across the apron, preparing a plane for flight or performing serious maintenance. Because of the amount of activity happening during normal operations, the flightline can also be one of the most dangerous areas of an airport. One of the most impressive activities that occur in normal day-to-day ground operations also happens to have the most risk involved: aircraft towing and pushback procedures

It's estimated that nearly 27,000 ramp accidents occur in airports worldwide each year, and the International Air Transportation Association has stated that almost 87 percent of these accidents happen when towing aircraft.

When ground crews operate an aircraft tug, specific protocols and safety procedures must be put in place to prevent potential tugs accidents, injuries or fatalities from occurring. In this article, we'll give you 12 essential safety protocols to follow to ensure your ground personnel can prevent tug accidents.

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. Properly Train Ground Personnel

Safely using aircraft ground support equipment involves proper ground personnel training. While the basic principles of aircraft towing are pretty easy to understand, each aircraft has its own nose landing gear mounting and dismounting procedures. Without proper tug training, it can be exceptionally easy for ground personnel to suffer a serious injury. Not to mention, operating an aircraft tug tractor requires in-depth driving knowledge and skill to avoid damaging the aircraft through accidental jackknifing, uncontrolled movement or the inability to stop motion.

Airports must require all employees to undergo thorough, on-the-job education and tug training. It's also beneficial for employees to pass a proficiency test on all aircraft they'll be towing before operating any aircraft tugs. The greatest deterrent of tug accidents is well-trained and educated employees.

2. Inspect Aircraft Tug Tractors Before Every Use

Ground personnel should always inspect aircraft tugs, towbars and any other equipment used in the process of an airplane pushback or tow before each aircraft towing procedure to ensure that they're in working order. Before connecting the towbar to the nose landing gear, ground personnel must inspect the aircraft tug tractor for defects or extraneous material that could interfere with safe operations. Any potential hazards should be identified, eliminated, controlled and documented to minimize risk.

3. Check Lighting When Performing Procedures at Night

If possible, ground personnel should avoid aircraft towing and pushback procedures in the dark. If this is unavoidable, make sure aircraft navigation lights and the runway are both thoroughly lit before beginning an aircraft pushback.

4. Test Radio System to Ensure Good Line of Communication

Before personnel can begin towing aircraft, operators should test the radio system to ensure that personnel can 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.

5. Secure Aircraft & Towbar Connections

Ensure that all aircraft doors are closed, ladders are retracted or removed, and landing gear is fully down and locked before beginning aircraft towing. After attaching the towbar to the plane, you should also ensure that the towbar is appropriately connected to the nose landing gear and the tug before towing the aircraft.

6. Turn Off the Engines

As a general rule, make certain that the aircraft's engines aren't running. An airplane should not be towed when its engines are in operation, as it can potentially harm any individual within the surrounding area of the aircraft pushback or tow. In addition, running engines increase the possibility of foreign object damage to the aircraft.

7. Assign a Trained Person to the Pilot's Seat

There should always be a trained and authorized person in the pilot's seat to operate the plane's brakes if needed, observe from the cockpit and warn the aircraft tug operator of any potential issues. The cockpit observer mustn't press the brakes when towing aircraft unless absolutely necessary. If the hydraulic pressure that allows for aircraft braking drops below safe operating limits, aircraft towing operations should immediately be terminated.

8. Position Wing Walkers Before Aircraft Towing

Wing walkers should be stationed at each wingtip during all aircraft towing and pushback processes. This will help to ensure there's enough room to clear any nearby objects. Wing walkers are also used to signal to the aircraft tug tractor operator if any clearance issues arise when the aircraft is moving. During an aircraft pushback, or when the aircraft has to turn sharply, a tail walker should also be assigned.

Note: Wing and tail walkers are not required to be fully proficient in all areas of tug training and do not require annual proficiency testing.

9. Verify Clearance From Control Tower

Before crossing a taxiway or runway, the cockpit observer must get proper clearance from the control tower and communicate it to the aircraft tug operator. An aircraft should never be towed without advance approval from the control tower.

10. Go Slow During All Procedures

Ground personnel should always take their time and go at a steady speed during airplane pushback and towing operations. This will allow drivers and observers to keep an eye on other drivers, keep control of maneuverability and give them ample time to process how much space they have when going forward or backward on the runway. The towing speed should never exceed that of walking team members.

11. Avoid Extreme Turns

While aircraft tugs and towbarless tugs have features to prevent damage to aircraft tug tractors and planes, 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 ground personnel must take a sharp turn, they should first consider whether they have enough clearance to do so and whether the aircraft tug even has the needed maneuverability.

12. Park the Plane Securely

No matter where the aircraft is parked on the flightline, there is always a possibility it can move when unattended if safety precautions are not taken into consideration. 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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