Why Maintaining an Airport’s Runway Is Vital to Safety

On July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde (Flight 4590) bound for New York City crashed shortly after takeoff. People watching the plane taxi down the runway were alarmed when they saw fire shooting out from beneath the plane.

Prior to this incident, the Concorde jets were considered among the most advanced and safest commercial aircraft. In fact, this was the only crash during the 27 years the Concorde was used. So what caused Flight 4590 to burst into flames?

airplane in sky

Shortly before the Concorde taxied down the runway, a Continental Airlines DC-10 had just departed on the same runway. During the DC-10’s take-off, a small titanium strip had fallen off the DC-10.

This titanium strip had previously been replaced twice since June, with the latest replacement on July 9, 2000. Apparently, the strip had not been installed correctly since it kept falling off the engine.1

This piece of FOD (Foreign Object Debris) was struck by the Concorde’s tires as it accelerated down the runway. Even though the titanium strip was only about 17 inches long, 1 inch wide, and a half inch thick, it was struck at such at speed it punctured and blew out one of the tires.

The blown tire threw a section of tire debris into the bottom of the aircraft at a speed of about 310 mph.1 While the impact did not puncture the bottom of the Concorde, it did create enough of a shockwave that it caused a rupture in one of the fuel tanks, allowing fuel to leak out and result in the fire.

airport runway

As is evident from this tragic event, if the FOD had been detected and removed from the runway prior to the Concorde’s departure, this accident most likely would not have occurred. Yet, this is not the only reported case of airplane damage from FOD.

As such, airports and airport operations need to develop effective FOD detection and removal safety standards to reduce the risks of aircraft damage and accidents.

How Often Do Airports Check and Remove FOD?

Current standards of FOD detection and removal vary based on the size of the airport and its location. Major large airports, like JFK, Heathrow, Atlanta, and so on, normally have vehicles that drive up and down the side of runways looking for FOD throughout the day.

Visual inspections are just one part of FOD safety prevent protocols. In addition to these, airports will use runway sweepers at specific intervals to collect and remove FOD. The types of FOD collected is dependent upon the type of sweeper used.

For instance, our FOD*BOSS airport runway sweeper is very effective at collecting debris from both wet and dry surfaces, as well as from grooved runways. According to the chief of maintenance at Dryden Flight Research Center at NASA, “The FOD*BOSS so far has picked up more than the ramp vacuum sweeper as evidenced by boxes of material collected on the Dryden Flight line.”2

woman looking out airport window

Some of the type of debris collected at Dryden included paper clips, rivets, and safety wire. Without regular runway sweeping, these objects could have resulted in damage to aircraft and potential accidents.

At smaller- and medium-sized airports, where air traffic is not as busy, FOD inspections may only occur anywhere from one to four times a day. The sweeping of the runway may only occur once a month. Unfortunately, this is the current standard many airports use, but this needs to be updated to ensure better safety for passengers, pilots, and crew members.

How Can Airports Improve FOD Removal and Safety Procedures?

One option is schedule airport sweepers and FOD removal for times when the airport is closed. Most airports shut down overnight, so this would allow sufficient time to sweep all of the runways every day.

Another option for larger and busier airports is to shut down a runway while it is being swept. With the right number of FOD*BOSS sweepers and vehicles, an entire runway could potentially be swept in about thirty minutes to an hour or less. Using this option would allow airports to be more proactive at FOD removal and keep the runways cleaner for inbound and outbound flights.

plane crashed on runway

Like visual inspections, FOD removal with runway sweepers is just another part of a complete prevention and safety program. Airport operations crew need to be trained to look for FOD while they are working and take the appropriate steps to remove it immediately.

For instance, if baggage handlers notice FOD in the terminal area while loading or unloading baggage, they should remove it from this location. In addition, if they notice a small part on the plane appears loose, they should notify maintenance personnel for the airline to do a visual inspection prior to the plane departing.

Furthermore, maintenance personnel could do quick inspections of the planes while passengers are disembarking/embarking to look for loose bolts, screws, and other items that could become potential FOD.

Can Technology Help Improve FOD Detection and Removal

air traffic controller Processes?

There are new technologies that involve using sensors, radar, and cameras to monitor runways for larger types of FOD. Some airports have already started implementing these technologies to monitor for FOD in between visual inspections and runway sweeping.

Early detection of FOD is crucial to keeping objects off of runways and from becoming potentially dangerous for aircraft. However, these systems mainly look for larger debris, so detecting smaller objects is not always possible. Even still, it is a move in the right direction for better FOD detection and improved safety.

plane landing on runway at dusk

Another technology solution airport operators can implement is our FOD*BOSS app for IOS (iPhone and iPad). The app tracks and records what areas of the runway have and have not been swept. It includes several features and options to make managing airport runway sweeper operations easier. You can even track how much FOD you collect with different sweepers, the distance swept, and when the last time the areas were swept.

The Future of FOD Detection and Removal

Airports of all sizes continue to increase the amount of inbound and outbound traffic. FOD detection and removal practices need to be updated to accommodate for this increase in air traffic. Current standards for FOD inspections and removal were developed in the 1940s and 1950s when the largest airports in the world only had a small number of flights each day.

Compared to that time, when there were only about 30 total flights in a 12-hour period, today, airports can handle hundreds of flights in just a few short hours! With this drastic increase in air traffic, comes increased risks for FOD being left on runways.

plane landing on runway at dusk

Airports should actively look for ways to improve their FOD detection and removal practice on an ongoing basis. Fortunately, all airports, regardless of size, have options and choices based on what will work best for them.

One of the most effective solutions on the market today is our FOD*BOSS sweeper. Our sweepers are easy to set up and deploy. There are no motors or moving parts, so maintenance costs are reduced.

In addition, our FOD*BOSS sweepers can be set up in single, double, or triple configurations based on the size of the vehicle towing the sweepers. Plus, our sweepers can be pulled behind golf carts, tugs, trucks, SUVs, and other types of vehicles already being used by airport operations.

Best of all, if you need to move the sweepers from one location to another, they fold up for easy transport. Once folded up, with our unique roller bag it only takes one person to lift the sweeper off the ground. To learn more about the FOD*BOSS and our other cost-effective and efficient runway sweeper solutions, please feel free to contact Aerosweep at +61 (0)3 9894 2100 today!

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