Are We Professionals?

I attended a presentation by Dr. Tony Kern a few years ago at the NBAA Maintenance Management Conference (NBAA MMC). Dr. Kern discussed professionalism. He gave us some things to think about concerning what it means to be a true professional. Some would say they are professionals because they follow all the regulations strictly. He disagreed, saying that was akin to saying, “I do what I need to get by — I follow the MINIMUM standards.” The purpose of Dr. Kern’s presentation was to encourage us be true professionals by going above and beyond the minimums to ensure we are doing the most we can to keep our customers safe.

I’ve been thinking about bare minimums a lot recently because of two well-publicized events in the media. The first was the March 4 incident in which a spanner wrench was accidentally left on the wing of an EasyJet 737. The other was an iPhone 6 fire aboard a commercial flight from Washington to Honolulu, HI, on March 17.
Tool Control

In the EasyJet incident, the aircraft was about to take off from Geneva, Switzerland, to fly to Copenhagen, Denmark, when a passenger noticed the wrench and alerted the crew. The pilot returned to the gate to have the tool removed and the flight safely departed shortly thereafter.

“If the aircraft had taken off with the tool lodged in the wing, it could have damaged components and affected flight controls, greatly endangering passengers,” says Joe Chwan, director of Worldwide Aerospace for Snap-on Industrial. “Or the tool could have shook free during takeoff and landed on the runway, leading to major foreign object damage (FOD) concerns for other aircraft using the runway. The best defense against these two potentially deadly scenarios is to establish proactive, proven tool control measures that prevent tools from being left on aircraft.

“Once the investigation is completed, it will be interesting to hear what kinds of tool control measures EasyJet had in place in Geneva,” continues Chwan. “Generally, the onus has been placed upon individual organizations and/or its technicians to ensure accountability for their tools. Any credible tool control system should meet five criteria: organization, visibility, security, trackability and accountability. These factors, when added together, give airlines and MROs the means to fully control everything that comes in contact with the aircraft. Manufacturers like Snap-on are taking the lead in developing tooling systems that address these five areas specifically for the aviation industry.”

A robust tool control program could have averted the spanner wrench incident. “As illustrated in the EasyJet incident, a forgotten tool and cause substantial damage to an aircraft and endanger lives,” says Chwan. “New innovations such as digital imaging technology allow the airline industry to track and monitor their tools in real time — which ultimately is driving the industry to develop safer maintenance practices, while streamlining its processes and increasing efficiencies. Of course all organizations want to operate in a safe manner, but the very nature of aviation as a whole carries inherent risks. Automated tool control and accountability is one area where MROs can become proactive and mitigate the dangers of a tool being left behind.”

Regarding tips for implementing a tool control program, Chwan offers some advice. “As maintenance managers look to establish a tool control program, a process of inspection and accountability — both before and after a job is completed — should be developed and followed.” Questions that should be asked in designing a tool control program are:

  • How extensive will the program be?
  • What materials will be monitored?
  • Who can perform a general inspection of the area?
  • What forms, or system checks, should be required?
  • Will all the tools in the flight department be in the program?
  • Will the company-owned tools be in the program and the technicians’ personal tools be left out?
  • How expensive will the program be and will the productivity gained help offset the program’s cost?

There are many ways a company can make tool control a part of their operations. But having a robust tool control program isn’t a regulatory requirement. Many maintenance organizations have chosen not to implement any sort of tool control program. They do the minimum that they need to do to comply with the regulations.

Lithium-ion Battery Fires

Lithium-ion batteries have become popular in many applications because of their excellent energy-versus-weight properties. Cell phones, laptops, tablets, portable charging devices (power blocks), cameras and even e-cigarettes all have lithium-ion batteries. A typical flying passenger probably has at least two lithium-ion battery-powered devices on their person each time they fly.

In the March 17 incident, a college student was flying from Washington to Honolulu, HI, for spring break. She was watching a movie on her iPhone 6 (powered by a lithium-ion battery) when it caught fire. Reports say the phone ended up under a passenger seat with flames shooting “eight inches high.” Flight attendants were able to extinguish the fire and the aircraft made it to its destination without further incident.

I’m sure the student and the passengers on that flight were terrified. Can you imagine if it were a laptop battery that caught fire?

Ray Goyco, president of Baker Aviation, says that when it comes to fires on multi-cell lithium-ion batteries like those on laptops, a fire can be severe. “Those explosions are intense,” says Baker. “It’s like a roman candle — it’s spraying molten shrapnel and toxic smoke all over the place! It is imperative that one have a viable plan of attack versus having no such plan in place. The main objective here is the safety of the mission while in the air, thereby mitigating risks and protecting the crew, owners, family members and key persons alike. The ship itself is insured and can be replaced. However, lives are lost forever.”

If you would like to see the intensity of lithium-ion batteries in laptops that are on fire, take a look at the videos at http://www.sharpbeta.com/iep/beta/custom-fabrication/fire-containment-bags.php.

I don’t know the methods the crew used to extinguish the iPhone fire, but those methods would have likely not contained a laptop fire. On January 19 of this year, the FAA released a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 16001 – “Risks of Fire or Explosion when Transporting Lithium Ion or Lithium Metal Batteries as Cargo on Passenger and Cargo Aircraft.” In it, the alert says:

“In 2015, FAA Tech Center testing showed that the ignition of the unburned flammable gases associated with a lithium battery fire could lead to a catastrophic explosion. The current design of the Halon 1301fire suppression system (concentration 5%) in a Class C cargo compartment in passenger airplanes is incapable of preventing such an explosion. In addition, tests also revealed that the ignition of a mixture of flammable gases could produce an over pressure, dislodging pressure relief panels, and thereby allowing leakage from the associated cargo compartment. This could lead to the spread of smoke and gases from the fire into occupied areas of the airplane. The number of cells necessary to produce this condition is small and can occur with just a few packages. Operators are encouraged to refer to SAFO 10017 for further information with the understanding that the recommendations contained in that SAFO may be amended with information sourced from continuing research.”

If you look at the videos noted earlier, you can see that even after extinguishing a laptop fire with a halon fire extinguisher, the explosions of the other cells continue in a chain reaction.

There are products available like Baker Aviation’s Hot-Stop “L” bag that can safely contain a lithium-ion fire on laptops and other electronic devices. But having these safety products onboard every flight isn’t a regulatory mandate, so many operators — from the airlines to corporate flight departments — choose not to purchase them.

So what do you do? Do you choose to meet the regulatory requirements as they are enacted? Or do you take a safety management system (SMS) approach and look at the risks involved with subjects like tool control and lithium-ion fire dangers into account when establishing your company procedures?

Maintenance managers have direct influence over whether or not to implement tool control programs. They also have the opportunity — no, I would say the obligation — to educate others like owners, pilots and customers on safety issues regarding lithium-ion battery fires and products that are available to help prevent a catastrophe should a runaway fire happen during flight.

Thanks for reading, and we welcome your feedback! – Joe 

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