I was doing the walk-around on the ramp this morning, and it seemed busier than usual. It probably wasn’t, but it seemed that way. Maybe it was because of the dark; maybe it was because it was the first flight of the first day of the new year. Who knows?
But it was a good reminder that ramp operations are not without risk. The typical general aviation airport does not have a lot of belt loaders, bag carts, or catering trucks, but it does have other risks. Maintenance personnel might be towing an airplane to or from the hangar, and they may not be looking forward while they drive. Some pilots may drive a car onto the ramp to load up an airplane or perform a minor maintenance task. Stray animals may wander around.
It’s even possible that an incident will occur involving something that really is supposed to be there. Years ago, a friend had just purchased a used Piper Cherokee. After a flight one day, he was taxiing back to his tie-down spot. The ramp was empty, so he planned to enter the spot from the rear, so that he could line up the nosewheel with the T line on the ramp and have the tie-down eyelets over the appropriate ropes. He wouldn’t have to muscle the airplane into position using the tow bar. It’s an act that takes place every day, and he had done it hundreds of times himself. He lined up the nosewheel and juiced the throttle by just a hundred or so rpm to prevent the nosewheel from settling in the hole in the pavement where the rope for the tail was.
In a confluence of events that can’t really be described, the propeller sucked up the rope, which wrapped itself around the back side of the prop. The rope tightened, pulling the nose down and slamming the prop into the ground and shutting down the engine. When the dust settled—literally—and he called the insurance company, the insurance representative told him this was the first time that they had ever had something like this happen. It was a fluke accident, on an action that many a reasonable person had taken, and exactly the kind of thing that he had insurance for. The engine and propeller were replaced, and he never taxied over a rope again.
The most dangerous possible event on a ramp involves a prop striking a person, or, with a jet engine, a person being sucked into an engine. Jet engines often have published “danger zones” for the front, side, and rear of the engine, which delineate where you can safely stand without danger if the engine is running. Piston engines don’t generally follow this practice, though they probably should. It’s hard to say what a safe distance is from a spinning propeller, because the very definition will change depending on where you are relative to the prop, how fast it’s spinning, and whether or not the airplane is moving. I don’t recommend it, but if you must approach an airplane with the engine running, you should either get the pilot’s attention, or, if unable to do that, approach from behind and knock on the fuselage, wing, or tail so that the pilot will hear you and not release the brakes.
Airport operations are some of the riskier things we deal with as pilots, though we don’t often equate them to the risk we face in the air. We should. Plenty can go wrong, and vigilance is key.
Speaking of keys, don’t leave them in the ignition when you aren’t in the airplane.—Chip Wright