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Aircraft Recovery – A joint effort for many stakeholders

Posted: 1 October 2010 | William Cusato, Chairman – IATA Aircraft Recovery Task Force (ARTF), Sr. Manager Hangar Maintenance – LAX, FedEx Express | No comments yet

Aircraft recovery has largely been a ‘Black Art,’ with many stories of heroic efforts and unorthodox procedures that are made infamous over a pint after the work is done. However, the industry has changed since the days when the character portrayed by George Kennedy in the original Airport motion picture firewalled the throttles of a Boeing 707 stuck in the snow as if it was hotrod muscle car. In contrast to that aircraft recovery story are hundreds of other real-world scenarios with negative outcomes, because the parties involved were unprepared to address the situations they faced.

Aircraft recovery has largely been a ‘Black Art,’ with many stories of heroic efforts and unorthodox procedures that are made infamous over a pint after the work is done. However, the industry has changed since the days when the character portrayed by George Kennedy in the original Airport motion picture firewalled the throttles of a Boeing 707 stuck in the snow as if it was hotrod muscle car. In contrast to that aircraft recovery story are hundreds of other real-world scenarios with negative outcomes, because the parties involved were unprepared to address the situations they faced.

Yes, it is true that according to the Aircraft Services Manual (ASM) Part 5, every operator must have an aircraft recovery plan submitted to every aerodrome that they operate. That plan must be reviewed and accepted by the aerodrome. However, are the plans always as thorough and precise as they should be? Do they include everyone who should be included? With the money that is at stake for operators and aerodrome organisations, as well as operators not involved in an event but affected by interrupted aerodrome operations, an aircraft recovery becomes a joint venture for everyone affected.

How do we jointly prepare for the infinite scenarios that we might encounter related to aircraft recovery? The best way to prepare is by following repeatable processes that are planned, prepared, and practiced by all parties involved. Aircraft recovery has been described as 50% art, 50% technical, and 100% logistics.

Although aircraft recoveries can range from a simple debog to massive construction projects to building temporary roads, the process all stakeholders follow should be consistent and reduce chaos when a negative event scenario occurs. Aircraft recovery is an element of every airport’s or aircraft organisation’s emergency response plan and it involves highly technical operations. However, the goal is the same as when a passenger terminal is evacuated for a security breach and the breach has been resolved. How can normal operations be restored quickly and efficiently?

The concept of treating aircraft recovery with a project management approach brings to focus three main elements of any project: cost, schedule, and quality. Operating in ‘project mode’ allows you more control of all three elements of cost, schedule and quality, instead of operating in ‘crisis mode,’ which often leaves stakeholders with control over only two of the three elements.

In preparing for aircraft recovery, one of the most basic preparedness components to have is a command and control or ‘org’ structure for the event. Airports will be looking for aircraft recovery personnel when an event happens. The key here is to have met the players in advance, so when an event happens there is a working relationship already established. Some airports have gone so far as to add a special icon on security badges, indicating a person has special skills needed for an event and can get past security checkpoints more easily and to the scene where they can add value. Many aircraft recoveries have been delayed due to poor communication between law enforcement, airport operations, and other involved organisations. In addition, the aircraft recovery manager needs local law enforcement’s help in keeping the site secure to enable a more efficient recovery. A strong working relationship with law enforcement can be the difference between a negative event handled with relative calm and a high stress chaotic situation with tempers on edge.

Another aspect of a good project management ‘org’ structure is allowing the front line supervisors and employees who directly manage the recovery to work without the organisational pressures that often go along with aircraft recovery. More specifically, it is important to have a layer of management between the frontline activity and the executives who have a vested interest in the event. Because of their need to keep abreast of developments, their involvement may actually impede progress. Frontline employees need interruptions minimised while trying to manage a recovery.

Regarding ‘org’ structure, no organisation can have everyone trained in aircraft recovery, nor should they try. A layered approach by which an organisation uses ‘first responders’ followed by the more highly-trained and experienced aircraft recovery specialists, seems to be a good balance. First responders are likely to be personnel stationed at the airport, who know local procedures and authorities. First responders should focus on supporting emergency response personnel in securing the site and most importantly, the people affected by an event. As is typical in such events, investigative processes will take hours to days and can delay actual aircraft recovery for an extended period of time. It is important that first responders have training in how the investigative process works so they are able to support both the initial response and aircraft recovery, which overlaps the investigation. In addition, first responders, who are generally local personnel, should have researched the local area in advance for providers of equipment and materials routinely required for aircraft recovery. Airports and operators should collaborate on this preparedness and have certain organisations pre-cleared for security, and perhaps on retainer, in advance to ensure prompt response and ‘reasonable’ pricing.

Similarly, aircraft recovery specialists must understand the investigative process and the implications of their actions on both the investigation and the financial impact which involves insurance underwriters. The phrase “Do No Harm” comes to mind when making decisions related to recovery.

Preparedness must also include some specific training, and not all of it technical. Bloodborne pathogen training is vitally important both physically, but also from a liability perspective. An aircraft recovery manager has a responsibility to make sure that employees are not unknowingly put at risk for exposure. Law enforcement officials are asking for bloodborne pathogen training cards and current inoculations (shot record in-hand) in order to gain access to the scene.

Environmental management is also an element of aircraft recovery that is taking on a larger role. Remediation of the site after the recovery can be more complex and costly than the actual recovery. Preparedness in this area cannot be overstated and every aircraft recovery manager should manage the project with this in mind and understand the risks associated with ignoring this element.

On the technical side, many insurance underwriters and civil aviation authorities are asking about the qualifications of those that are actually managing an aircraft recovery. Many aircraft recovery managers learned their skill from watching those who had gone before them. This is becoming less acceptable given the liability involved. ASM Part 5 calls for aircraft recovery managers to have documented training, addressing the basics including: survey, CG management, weight reduction, tethering, lifting, towing and post recovery requirements, emphasising health and safety.

Weight reduction is an increasingly important element in aircraft recovery and many of the newer aircraft have a net recoverable weight that allows for little fuel or payload on board when the aircraft is lifted. Each operator is required to have a plan in place to be able to defuel their largest aircraft operated at that airport. This might involve contracting with a local fuelling vendor. How many empty 10,000 gallon (38,000 L) fuel trucks will it take to defuel an A380 that has a rejected takeoff and is stuck in mud off the end of the runway? Most airports have full fuel trucks standing by to support normal operations. A major defuel is not what they are planning for. And yet, without defuel capabilities, aircraft recovery will be impeded. This is a major area where airports and operators should collaborate on a plan to be able to defuel and store what will become wasted fuel that cannot be put back into the normal system. Mismanagement of a defuel evolution, storage, and removal can result in a bigger project than the aircraft recovery itself. Proper preparation and coordination in advance can be instrumental during a time-critical recovery.

Payload removal can present just as big a challenge as fuel. In some cases, a cargo aircraft could have hazardous material on board that has been compromised, or could be if not handled correctly. Again, removal of payload is a significant part of the aircraft recovery in order to be able to do a lift. Even if you can get a cargo loader to the aircraft with some temporary road, will it be of any use if the aircraft is in a 6° nose down or 10° wing down attitude due to a landing gear failure? In this situation, the use of other equipment will be required to remove the payload. Advance preparation for this scenario can reduce the stress and time involved in aircraft recovery and help ensure salvageable cargo is preserved in the best possible condition for customers who are waiting for it. Plus, insurance underwriters do not want to pay for cargo that survived an event only to have it damaged during recovery. A joint effort between airport managers and operators can speed the payload removal process along.

Aircraft recovery is part of an overall emergency response and the recovery team is often an integral part of an investigation. The team may need to remove parts for investigators and secure those parts along with the aircraft itself, sometimes for years. Aircraft recovery managers and airport authorities must work together to maintain chain-of-custody of aircraft material, in a way that is satisfactory to investigators and insurance underwriters. With investigations and litigation taking years, this can be a contentious issue. A little advanced planning can go a long way in this area.

Another element of aircraft recovery that is becoming important is the technical data used to perform an actual recovery. The typical Aircraft Recovery Manual provides guidance and load limits. However, how do you prove that the manual was followed and the aircraft was not overloaded? There have been several recoveries where the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or insurance underwriter asked the operator or recovery manager, “How much load did you put on the landing gear during the debog?” An otherwise undamaged landing gear that is overloaded during recovery could require an overhaul. Something the underwriter is not going to want to pay for. How can you prove the gear is still airworthy to the satisfaction of the regulators? These simple questions can be difficult to answer if there is little or no documentation about the details of a recovery. Load cells with digital recording functions that link wirelessly to a laptop can protect everyone involved from causing secondary damage and provide answers to questions from CAA inspectors and underwriters.

Aircraft recovery can be accomplished in many different ways, but with proper planning, preparedness, and practice, much of the stress, time, and cost can be reduced. Coordination and collaboration with other stakeholders can result in a better solution than if just one organisation takes on the entire burden of aircraft recovery. Yes, it is the operator’s responsibility to recover an aircraft, but every group surrounding the event has a stake in the outcome. A joint collaborative effort can go a long way to restoring normal operations. Plan, Prepare, and Practice together.

About the Author

William Cusato

William Cusato is Sr. Manager of LAX Hangar Maintenance for FedEx Express. He has been deployed to remote field locations on numerous occasions in the past 27 years and participated in and managed aircraft maintenance, modification, repair, recovery, and accident investigation. He has done so while working for both FedEx Express and McDonnell Douglas. He is also the Accountable Manager for the FedEx Express FAR 145 Repair Station and is Chairman of the IATA Aircraft Recovery Task Force.