Prior to joining Air bp in summer 2019, 40-year-old Barry Rowan spent 15 years working with the Royal Air Force (RAF) where his roles varied from VIP driving to airfield refuelling.
“I specialised in fuelling in arduous conditions ranging from extreme arctic conditions to heavy rain, gale-force winds and hot deserts. As a refueller, it was essential aircraft were ready to go at a moment’s notice. Working with the RAF saw me travelling around the world often with very little notice,” Rowan tells me. “Towards the end of my RAF career I worked in the Tactical Supply Wing (TSW). We would often be called up to go and work on refuelling helicopters during emergency relief missions in places such as the Caribbean during hurricane season.”
Describing how his work with the RAF saw him refuelling both rotor and fixed-wing aircraft, Rowan explains that:
“With the rotor aircraft we would often carry out live refuels (also known as hot refuels). This means we were trained to go under the blades while they were turning as the aircraft would be needed to get back into action quickly. Whereas with fixed wing aircraft the engine would be shut down.”
When his 15-year contract with the RAF came to an end last year, Rowan decided it was time to move on. With his extensive background in refuelling he joined Air bp in August as an airfield operator based at Glasgow Prestwick Airport in Scotland.
While working for a global corporation is very different to working with the RAF, Rowan admits that his experience working with the military stood him in good stead for his training with Air bp, which took about six weeks.
“One thing that really struck me moving from a military background to Air bp is that the training is really comprehensive, and the procedures are different. For example, when I refuel helicopters now and in line with Air bp’s health, safety and security requirements, these are static refuels when the engine is shut down. That’s because we’re refuelling in very different circumstances to the military. For example, in the military we might be expected to refuel in remote places rather than at bases or airports. Safety is a core value of bp’s so in the training I learned everything from how to use Air bp’s Airfield Automation technology to calculating the quantity needed to refuel an aircraft and how to offload bulk fuel.” “When I left the RAF, I thought I’d seen the last of military aircraft,” he says. “But occasionally they do fly into Prestwick and because of my background I’ll be asked to help with the refuelling.”
The biggest difference in his role with Air bp is that when he refuels an aircraft Rowan himself is responsible for connecting the fuelling hose to the aircraft and filling it.
“In the military I would hand the equipment to a technician who would give me a hand signal to start and stop the actual fuel pumping. Air bp’s refuelling process is much more precise as these are commercial customers who agree exactly how much fuel they want. Air bp has a three-way safety cross check to avoid misfuelling."
"Prior to the current coronavirus pandemic, the bulk of the refuelling was on the Boeing 737 for the low-cost carrier Ryanair – Prestwick’s biggest airline customer. The airport is also a hub for cargo operations and a small number of general and business aviation flights and emergency services,” he adds.
On a usual day depending on the traffic, Rowan could refuel up to 20 aircraft per day. The current crisis means that there are fewer aircraft in need of refuelling and operators need to work within social distancing guidelines.
“Some airlines are still carrying out test flights to ensure airworthiness, so we are refuelling their aircraft but that’s only a couple of times a week. We’ve also recently refuelled a cargo flight that was carrying important medical supplies,” says Rowan.
He underlines the value that’s placed on safe and secure operations with Air bp. There’s a rigorous process in place for refuelling operators that starts with personal protective equipment. Rowan and other operator colleagues wear items such as a bump cap, gloves, ear defenders and safety glasses.
“Then I make sure I’ve got the correct fuel specification and volume as requested by the pilot. Jet A1 is the most likely fuel to be used, although we do also supply Avgas at Prestwick,” he says.
In terms of the challenges he faces, Rowan explains that the weather can impact how he works.
“We’ve already had some significant storms this year, so for example, if there’s lightning in the area we cannot refuel for safety reasons. Also, we use steps to reach the fuelling orifice on the 737, so we need to be mindful of the risks in strong wind conditions. It’s crucial that you can think on your feet especially during a night shift where typically I’ll be working on my own.”
Tight turnaround times can be another challenge. The need to offload passengers and their bags before loading the next set and refuelling in a timely, efficient and safe manner is critical in getting passengers away on time.
“Planning is key here,” says Rowan. “My shift always starts with careful planning on what aircraft are due and when and then prioritising the order in which they need refuelling.”
Part of a team of nine operators work in shifts, Rowan explains that he is given a list of flight plans each day. “I’ll use this as a basis of timings, but there is always the expectation that I’ll need to adapt and be flexible throughout the day in line with fluctuating air traffic movements. Essentially, as I am responsible for how much fuel I have left in my truck and whether that’s enough to refuel the next aircraft due in. I will always liaise with the site manager who has an overview of fuel stock levels and fuelling operations across the airport. So, in that sense it’s a team effort.”
When asked about how he’s adapting to civilian life away from the military, Rowan admits he’s still getting used to it. “You form very close bonds with those you work with in the military, especially as we were often working in extreme circumstances a long way from home. But I work with a really friendly, professional team and I’m looking forward to seeing how my role evolves with Air bp. It’s still early days, but already I feel that there are many opportunities open to me working in a big organisation that cares about nurturing and developing the talent within the team.”
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