When talking about aviation safety, most passengers only think about the safety brief delivered by the cabin crew as we are pushed back from the gate. But there is a whole different side to aviation safety that most travellers never see,.
Many would have looked out their windows and seen airport vehicles with large numbers on the door and flashing orange lights on the roof. Often these vehicles are driven by members of the airport operations team, who look after the safety operations of many airports across Australia and beyond.
Without these important, 24/7 teams at major airports, our safety would be in jeopardy before we even take off.
I was recently fortunate to spend part of a shift with one of Darwin International Airport’s (DIA) airside operations officers (AOO), Maria. My visit coincided with one of the busiest times of the year for aerodrome ground operations at DIA, with a major military exercise underway.
DIA shares runways with RAAF Base Darwin, and the RAAF’s biennial Exercise Pitch Black draws nations from around the world to the Northern Territory. This year’s exercise brought 140 military aircraft to the Top End to carry out intense aerial combat and tactical training.
For Maria and the operations team, the activity on the airfield increases dramatically during this three to four week period.
I met Maria at the Terminal Control Centre (TCC) part way through her shift and as we prepared to head out to the safety car I asked her what her job entails and the types of responsibilities she faces.
“My responsibility is to ensure the safety of aerodrome operations and report any non-compliances. This includes carrying out runway and taxiway inspections, bird hazard management, responding to aircraft emergencies, spills, facilitating aircraft parking, monitoring the Obstacle Limitation Surfaces (OLS), overseeing aircraft ground operations and so on,” Maria says.
“We also conduct routine Regular Public Transport (RPT) apron inspections. My role is dedicated to airside operations, however we have a relatively small team and at times I may be required to provide support to our other operations.”
She says her ambition to work in aviation started at an early age, but a safety role hadn’t been an immediate focus.
“My passion for aviation only began in my teenage years and like most teenage girls, it was my dream to become a flight attendant.
“I never knew that there was such a job as an airside operations officer, however after starting out in the industry I knew that was exactly what I wanted to aim for. The rest is history!”
Maria started working at the airport as an 18 year old in customer service and has been in her current role for four years.
On the day of our tour she is driving the Safety One car, providing me with an induction before we went out onto the airfield. Driving across the apron towards the taxiways, I asked Maria about her typical daily routine.
“A typical day consists of carrying out runway, taxiway and apron inspections, bird harassments, calculating crane assessments and inspecting the OLS, responding to emergencies or spills that may occur on the aerodrome,” she says.
“No day is ever the same.”
As we drive across the airfield, we see some large transport aircraft – a RAAF C-17A Globemaster III, Malaysian Air Force Airbus A400M Atlas and some Lockheed C-130J Hercules – all here for the exercise.
Maria says the unique range of aircraft seen at Darwin is one of the highlights of the job.
“If I were to choose one thing that I love I would have to say it’s the diverse range of traffic that we get the opportunity to work around,” Maria says.
“There have been days that I’ve driven out onto the airfield to find a C-5, C-17, B-52, B747, F/A-18s and an A400 all within a few hundred metres of one another. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
A key part of Maria’s role during exercises such as Pitch Black is ensuring effective coordination between DIA and RAAF Base safety personnel.
“We work closely with the RAAF Base Safety Officer (BASO). As our runways and southern taxiways are jointly used with the military, we liaise with them if any of their operations have an impact on civil operations,” she says.
We pass by the Bomber Replenishment Apron (BRA) and the various parked aircraft include the Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters and the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s F-16’s Falcons and F-15SG’s Strike Eagles.
As we drive along, the military jets are preparing to leave and the displaced threshold lighting system for the duty runway must be activated.
The temporary PAPI lighting system consists of four lights that visually gives a slope indication to pilots on approach. The Runway Threshold Identification Lights (RTILS) are two bright strobes, one either side of the runway. Maria coordinates the change with the air traffic control tower, highlighting one example of the collaboration required across the airport to ensure its safe operations.
“We work side by side with our airport duty managers who run terminal operations,” Maria says.
“They plan our daily aircraft parking and are also able to assist in airside operations in the event that we need help on the airfield in an emergency situation.
“We’re also required to maintain contact with air traffic control at all times who we have a great working relationship with.
“There has to be a level of trust between us and them as we’re working in an environment that is high risk and demanding at the best of times.”
The first of the military traffic, a Singaporean Gulfstream G550, is requesting clearances so we start the side to side inspection drive down runway 11.
We notice some birds hovering and, just as we near, there is a loud noise from above the ute – Maria has hit the bird harassment siren button.
“What a lot of people don’t realise when flying from one airport to the other is the amount of time that is dedicated to managing wildlife to allow aircraft to take-off and land safety,” Maria says.
“Between 2006-2015, 16,096 bird strikes were reported to the ATSB in Australia alone.
“Fortunately, we have a range of methods that we use to reduce the level of bird activity on the airfield and with new technology being introduced we are always implementing new tools to improve the level of safety on the field.
For the next 30 minutes we move up and down parallel to the runway watching a constant flow of jet aircraft leaving. With the high number of aircraft movements taking place, we talk about emergencies and the airport’s approach to runway maintenance.
“As we are a joint user aerodrome, our main runway is fitted with Aircraft Arrestor Hook Cables used by military jets,” Maria says.
“The RAAF has a requirement to maintain both cables, therefore standard maintenance is carried out every fortnight.
“Minor works, such as painting of the runway centreline or edge markings are planned during quite periods where traffic is low, while for major works there is a Method of Working Plan which is jointly prepared by DIA and Defence.
“Things such as cranes may have an impact to airspace safety depending on the location and the height of the crane.
“A number of risk assessments are completed in situations like these to ensure that there won’t be an impact to aircraft safety.”
On our final drive across the airfield I raise the point that there have been a few diversions into Darwin recently, some as big as an A380.
“Depending on the aircraft type, assisting with a medical emergency where an aircraft is diverting becomes our number one priority,” Maria says.
“Things that we consider are getting the passenger off as quickly as possible.
“A runway inspection will be completed prior to their arrival and departure bearing in mind that we may have never facilitated that particular aircraft before.
“In some cases, you may receive notification of a diverting aircraft 15 minutes prior to their arrival. Quick thinking, team work and effective communication is key in these situations.”
So next time you are in Darwin or any major airport for that matter, spare a thought for the professionals in the brightly lit vehicles that make the beginning and end of our journeys as safe as the actual flight between destinations.
By Sid Mitchell
About Sid Mitchell
Sid Mitchell is an amateur photographer with a passion for capturing the many aspects of aviation. He recently wrote about his experience travelling with Safety Car One at Darwin International Airport. This is an edited version of his account, published as part of Airport Safety Week.