Aircraft towing is a frequent and vital operation around any airport. Towing may be needed for the movement of active or disabled aircraft on airport ramps or in moving aircraft in and out of hangers for maintenance procedures or for storage.
Towing aircraft can be dangerous and damage to the aircraft, other objects, or injuries to towing team members is possible if the proper procedures are not followed. Most towing accidents are preventable by the proper handling of the aircraft, maintaining situational awareness, and practicing patience. Towing accidents cannot only result in aircraft damage but can also delay or cancel flights or lead to other airport disruptions.
Movement of most aircraft around the airport and hangars is usually accomplished by towing with a towing vehicle or ‘tug’. The aircraft is attached it to the tow vehicle by the use of a towbar or other specialized methods that connect to or raise the nose or landing gear off the ground.
Detailed towing instructions for each different model of aircraft are located in the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions and each towing operator should have established procedures that are to be used for the towing process as a part of the overall safety program. The aircraft towing personnel must be familiar with all published towing procedures pertaining to the type of aircraft being towed and any specific airport regulations regarding the ground movement of aircraft. All towing personnel must be properly trained to perform the procedures and there needs to be mandatory requirements for the initial, recurrent, and remedial training for all personnel involved with the towing process.
The main responsibility of the towing team members is to ensure that no part of the aircraft structure will come into contact with any other aircraft or any other object during the aircraft movement. A safe towing operation requires a coordinated team effort from all towing personnel. Every team member should be aware of their exact roles before starting a towing procedure and any member has the authority to stop a towing operation at any time if they anticipate a hazardous situation or lose sight of any other team member.
Communication should be established between all towing team members during the duration of the aircraft movement. Depending on where the aircraft movement is located, ATC clearance may be required before moving the aircraft, such as movement across runways or taxiways, so communications with ATC may also need to be established.
The towing vehicle driver is responsible for controlling the speed and direction of the aircraft during the towing operation and obeying emergency stop instructions given by the team members if an unsafe condition arises. The driver must always maintain visual contact with all team members. The towing operation must be stopped if visual contact is broken.
Wing Walkers are assigned to assist the tow driver to detect potential obstructions or airport traffic and help guide the aircraft so that adequate clearance is maintained. Wing walkers are stationed at each wingtip to provide a wider visual awareness of the area surrounding the aircraft. A tail walker may also need to be assigned if the aircraft needs to be backed into position. Wing walkers must maintain a constant line of sight with the driver at all times.
Before the aircraft is moved, a team member must occupy the pilot’s seat in the cockpit to operate the aircraft brakes in case the tow bar should fail or become unhooked or any impending situation requires the aircraft movement to be stopped immediately to prevent damage. The aircraft brakes should only be applied in emergency situations. The aircraft brakes must never be applied during towing as that will cause undue stress in the towing equipment and can damage the equipment or the aircraft.
In most cases, towing accidents occur when the proper planning was not completed before the towing operation began, a lack of communication between team members or if distractions or lapse of concentration by any of the towing team members are allowed to happen while the towing is in process. Towing collision risk is greater during movements after dark or in poor weather conditions.
The main towing risk is a collision between the aircraft being towed and another aircraft or an impact with another object, such as a hangar door. Even relatively minor collisions can have a significant impact on the availability of the aircraft for flight.
Evidence shows that there are a number of recurrent factors that lead to aircraft damage during towing. The towing team members should aware of and follow the below guidelines before towing any aircraft.