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Responsibility on the rampResponsibility on the ramp

High-profile accidents can draw widespread attention to issues that aren’t usually pondered much outside the aviation community. The 1999 deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister taught the general public—and reminded pilots—about the risk of spatial disorientation during night flight in featureless surroundings. Despite all the publicity, however, similar accidents have happened every year since.

Ramp safety has also had its moments, most recently in December 2011. That was when a pilot providing evening sightseeing flights to view Christmas lights chose to keep the airplane’s engine running while loading and unloading passengers. The airplane was a high-wing tandem two-seater flown from the front. His first passenger followed his instruction to exit past the tail of the airplane—until a gracious impulse led her to approach his window in order to thank him for the ride. Edging around the strut, she walked into the propeller from behind.

She survived, but that brief and utterly avoidable misunderstanding left her with serious, but non-life-threatening injuries. Because the passenger was already known to the public—press accounts at the time described her as a “23-year-old model and fashion editor”—her misfortune received considerably wider coverage than most nonfatal general aviation accidents. The contrast between pre-accident photos of a beautiful young woman and the description of her injuries was a cruel reminder that an airport ramp can be a dangerous place for the uninitiated. With more than three years having passed since, this might be time to review just how little our passengers, customers, and guests understand about those hazards.

Begin by reminding yourself that a moving propeller is hard to see even in the daytime. At night it’s completely invisible. Not only do nonpilot passengers lack a clear sense of how big a prop is, they can’t be expected to have any notion of how heavy and sharp the blades are or how fast they’re moving. It’s crucial to brief every new prospect and passenger before guiding them inside the fence. We find it perfectly appropriate to begin that briefing by likening the propeller to the blade of a gargantuan food processor.

Members of the AOPA staff are frequent volunteers at public-benefit events that offer introductory flights to members of the general public: the EAA Young Eagles, Women Fly It Forward, International Learn to Fly Day, and so on. We’ve learned a number of best practices that work equally well for operators offering air tours, discounted discovery flights, and the like. Most are common sense. Some might seem overly conservative for normal training flights with established students, but these are prudent precautions to take with passengers who have never been around any light aircraft before.

  • Don’t allow anyone onto the ramp without an escort. Generally, the pilot of each aircraft should be responsible for his or her own passengers from the moment they step onto the ramp until they’re safely off again.
  • Never allow them to walk in front of an airplane (unless it’s a pusher design) or behind a helicopter—tail-rotor strikes are every bit as dangerous! Don’t even permit this when the aircraft is unoccupied and tied down with the engine stopped. Start instilling the habit of staying away from the sharp end in everyone who might come back for a real lesson.
  • Watch children every instant; they’re liable to dart off without warning. Small children should hold someone’s hand until they’re belted into the aircraft, and then again until they’re off the ramp.
  • Never attempt to load or unload an airplane with the engine running. Even if there’s reason to anticipate hot-starting problems with a fuel-injected powerplant, the risk far exceeds the benefits. Hot swaps are sometimes permissible in helicopters—if the main rotor blades can’t reach within seven feet of the ground, one qualified pilot remains actively on the controls, and another conducts the passengers to and from the aircraft.
  • Keep passengers well clear of any aircraft whose beacon or strobe is flashing.
  • The heat and velocity of jet blast are dangerous in their own right. Keep your guests well back from any area that might be reached by their exhaust as they start or taxi past.

Above all, don’t expect newcomers to display what you’ve come to think of as common sense, because they haven’t had the chance to learn it. Some eventually will—provided they enjoy a safe and uneventful introduction. In the meantime, this is yet another place where we need to leave nothing to chance. A safe flight begins on the ramp.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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