JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —
Air Force pilots face the threat of bird strikes on a daily basis, incidents that cost the service millions of dollars in damage to aircraft each year and place fliers’ lives in jeopardy.
However, bird strikes are not the only danger pilots confront when they are flying.
Seemingly harmless objects such as small rocks, bolts, screws and gaskets can become inadvertently lodged in the mechanical systems of aircraft, causing potentially deadly engine or instrument failure when pilots take to the skies.
An Air Force initiative called the Foreign Object Damage Program strives to ensure aircraft are free of items that can compromise their operation, keeping aircrew members out of harm’s way.
Keeping aircraft FOD-free is a joint effort of aircraft mechanics, maintenance personnel and repair specialists as well as aircrew members – or anyone who steps foot on a flightline or in a hangar where aircraft are housed, said Bill Taylor, 12th Flying Training Wing FOD monitor.
“It’s all a team effort, from the flightline to the back shops,” he said. “Everybody has to be aware. If you work on aircraft or fly aircraft, you have to be FOD-conscious.”
Because any foreign object in a maintenance or manufacturing area has the potential to cause damage, prevention is the first line of defense against FOD.
Training for employees who work on aircraft emphasizes FOD prevention practices such as good housekeeping – continuous actions to improve work areas, keeping work areas safe and free of hazardous conditions and ensuring all items in work areas have a marked place and can be easily and immediately retrieved, as well as cleaning work areas on a regular basis.
Other prevention practices include proper storage of workplace items, work area controls, repair precautions and regular inspections.
Another important prevention measure is capping components when they are being stored or when a piece of equipment is taken apart for maintenance or repair, Taylor said.
Debris can enter an open space created by the removal of a piece of equipment and compromise aircraft operation, he said.
When an item is discovered missing by pilots or maintenance personnel, it is immediately reported to the Maintenance Operations Control Center, which immediately notifies Quality Assurance, Taylor said. At that time a “Lost Tool or FO Report” is initiated and gets the ball rolling.
An internal search by maintenance personnel begins immediately, he said. If the search comes up empty, a QA inspector is called to the scene to perform a thorough search as well. In addition to serving as the wing FO monitor, Taylor is a QA inspector.
Searches can be time-consuming, especially if ejection seats have to be removed to facilitate a more extensive search in the cockpit areas, Taylor said.
Maintenance shops are not the only places where FOD prevention is required, he said. Flightlines also need to be free of debris because anything that can be sucked into an aircraft’s air intake has the potential for grave consequences. A FOD sweeping device is used on the flightlines at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and other airfields to remove foreign objects that can harm aircraft and aircraft tires.
Aircraft mechanics and maintenance personnel play a major role in FOD prevention, Taylor said.
“Anytime you work on an aircraft, you have to keep track of your tools and hardware,” he said. “You have to be vigilant.”
That same vigilance applies to aircrew members because they carry pens, pencils, publications, wallets and other items that can be dropped and end up in aircraft systems, Taylor said.
“The bottom line is that FOD prevention is a must when you’re working on the flightline or in one of the shops,” he said. “A foreign object could be anywhere in the aircraft. We have to stay on top, because we don’t want to lose aircraft or any of our people.”