This is not an isolated incident neither is it uncommon

Air India ground staff death Why cant aircrafts taxi in reverse Explained
news Aviation Friday, December 18, 2015 - 16:48

A day after an Air India service engineer got sucked into the live engine of an A-319 aircraft at Mumbai airport on Wednesday evening and died, more details of the incident have emerged.

Air India has since attributed the freak accident to a "communication gap" between pilots and ground staff. The pilots will not be flying planes for the time being, but the airline has refused to blame anyone for the death of 46-year-old Ravi Subramaniam till the inquiry is over.

The accident occurred when Hyderabad-bound Flight 619 was being pushed back - a standard procedure at airports, done with vehicles called 'pushback tugs' at around 8:45 pm with about 100 passengers on board. 

This is not an isolated incident neither is it uncommon. There have been many reports of engineers and ground staff getting sucked into live engines.

In 2011, an aircraft worker in New Zealand was killed after he was sucked into a plane engine during 'routine maintenance', while a similar incident occurred with a mechanic standing near a Boeing 737 in Texas in 2006.

Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant tells The News Minute, "Clear details are still awaited and I don't want to pre-empt, but there has definitely been a serious violation somewhere." 

Some reports state that there was an APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) failure due to which standard start-up procedure was not followed. Others say that the co-pilot was a trainee.

"The voice recorder will soon tell us what exactly happened between the pilot and the engineer but if any of the reports were true, it is not only an error on the airline, but also on the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) and their evaluation process for training pilots. Either way, I hope we get some answers and the airline does not try to cover up," Ranganathan adds.

In the wake of the incident, it is interesting to note that airplanes in general, do not reverse and are usually pushed back by the pushback tugs.

“Under the norms, after the aircraft is pushed back into the bay by a tow truck, chocks have to be put on by the ground staff to stop the wheels from moving even if the aircraft engines get started inadvertently. In this case, no chocks were placed on the wheels. So, as soon as the pilot started the engine - again without following norms, like waiting for an all-clear signal from the ground engineers - the wheels of the plane moved forward and the engine sucked in the technician standing ahead,” a report in The Telegraph, Calcutta, quotes Vipu Saxena, another aviation expert, as stating.

To understand why planes need a 'pushback', it is important to understand how they move.

Planes move by pulling or pushing themselves through the air, rather than by applying engine power to spin their wheels, and thus have no forward or reverse gears. Like ground vehicles' engines, the aircraft's engines can't run backwards.

Here is where the pushbacks come in. The vehicles obviously do not have the strength to push the plane. However, all they have to do is lift the plane and overcome the inertia. Watch the video of a lift here.

Typically, the driver wears a headset to communicate with the pilots.

According to a report in Flight Club, the driver is responsible for communicating to the pilots that it's safe for the plane to leave, and will say something like this:

"The walk-around is complete, the bypass pin is in, the safety zone is clear, and all cargo bin doors and access panels are closed. We'll be doing a 2-person push." 

The report adds that the 2-person push means the pilot needs to check for two people when the push is complete - the driver and the wing walker, who walks around the plane during pushback and makes sure there are no vehicles, people or obstacles behind the aircraft, especially in crowded airports.

Only after the check can the pilots start the engines and prepare for takeoff.

That said, the planes do have some interesting features and can redirect the airflow of their thruster to oppose the plane's forward movement and gradually reverse.

However, the procedure requires high power, burns a lot of fuel, creates extreme noise, and generates heavy winds. The procedure is also subject to damage from objects that can get pulled in.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued a notice to the Secretary, Union Civil Aviation Ministry and the Chairman of Air India after taking suo motu cognizance of media reports. They have been given two weeks to respond.

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