A Guide to Aircraft Recovery

Stephen Hill, a loss adjuster at McLarens Aviation who also leads the firm’s aircraft recovery course, discusses best practice for this scenario and what MROs should also consider.

“Authorities confirmed that following an off runway incident that occurred at 0830 local, the airport will be closed until further notice until the aircraft can be recovered and appropriate NOTAMs were issued.“

The pressure is on, a runway is closed and aircraft are being diverted, an urgent solution is required. Situations such as this can occur at any airport around the world, sound preparation and planning are required to reduce the impact and to get safe operations resumed at the earliest opportunity.

It is with these real life situations in mind that we have pioneered a course offering insight and practical training in aircraft recovery techniques. The course is now in its second year of operation and over two days focusses on the planning for and managing of an event, including a practical exercise where candidates get the opportunity to train on and use specialist recovery equipment such as air bags, slings, temporary roadways and lifting equipment.

Early preparation and training for such an event can mean that airports and operators themselves are left in a much better position and more confident to respond quickly and effectively following an incident.

Moreover, from an MRO perspective, gathering as much information and factual data at the earliest opportunity will help establish the potential resource requirements to enable an initial damage review. From this review, the formulation of a viable recovery plan taking into account further variables such as weather and terrain can be undertaken. So what are the lessons for any aircraft recovery scenario?

As with any crisis situation, planning is crucial and there are some important points to consider:

1. Follow due process

Every aircraft recovery scenario is unique and on that basis it is imperative that the recovery manager seeks permission to enter site and meets with the investigating authorities, airline, airport operator, police and emergency services, before any initial damage surveys and recovery plans, environmental considerations are initiated, to enable a full understanding of the situation and aircraft fuel/load configuration. Every recovery requires a survey, detailed planning, and sound preparation before it is undertaken.  The initial actions will cover the preliminary planning, an assessment of onsite hazards, the condition of the aircraft, the condition of the site and weather both actual and expected.

2. Put safety first

Modern aircraft construction uses significant amounts of lightweight material, such as carbon fibre which when exposed to heat and temperature can result in residues of minute toxic shards of carbon fire that pose a significant health hazard if inhaled or absorbed through skin.  The wearing of the correct personal protection equipment (PPE) is therefore vital. Fire hazards from residual fuel left in the aircraft and any hazardous cargo for example Lithium ion batteries needs to be considered via a review of fuel loads and cargo manifests.

3. Expect the unexpected

Given the nature of these operations and the potential variables, they can become very fluid and best laid plans may be subject to change at short notice, dependant on factors, such as terrain, weather conditions, structural integrity availability and serviceability of equipment. It’s also worth noting that these events often occur due to weather related factors and the subsequent recoveries can take place in the most inclement weather conditions and often at night, if the airport is still operational.

4. Communication is key

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most important factor to consider is good communication, leadership and regular meetings with the appointed representatives of all relevant parties at key stages to ensure a safe and successful outcome of the recovery.

After planning comes implementation. In the training scenario that we run – a fairly typical aircraft grounding – this is the point when personnel are deployed to the site to take stock of the situation and select the appropriate equipment for the task of aircraft stabilisation. This includes a heavy compressor, airbags and safety tethering cables so as to pull the nose out of the mud. Once the nose is raised, a safety jack is positioned to enable the nose landing gear to be inspected and landing gear safety pin installed, allowing for the next phase of the recovery to begin.

At this point the safety jack is removed and airbags deflated, to allow temporary roadway tracks to be positioned along the recovery route to avoid the aircraft bogging down during its recovery back to the runway.  It’s at this point that teamwork comes into play; whilst one party may continue to focus on roadway preparation, other team members unpack tow lines and associate digital load cell measuring equipment to monitor loads on the main landing gears during the pull.

Our particular scenario required a 32 ton tractor in place, with a team strategically placed to monitor the operation and ensure safety lookouts were in place for slow controlled recovery of the aircraft back to the runway paved area without further damage to the aircraft or the airport infrastructure. In this instance it took five hours after the practical exercise commenced for the aircraft to be reunited with the runway, towed to the maintenance area and the runway declared open, though it goes without saying that this will differ from incident to incident.

This article originally appeared as a guest blog post on 8 September on MRO Network website.