Ground damage is a pretty common occurance in the airline world. Bag loaders, service trucks, and even gates regularly punch holes in airplanes. A few months ago, our sister airline suffered a depressurization incident caused by unreported ground damage, so it's a bit of a sensitive subject at our company. Besides the safety factor, ground damage costs airlines a lot of money, and it's mostly preventable. It's usually caused by time-pressed employees who get careless and make mistakes.
On Tuesday, though, I was involved in a ground damage incident that probably qualifies for freak occurence status. A chain of seemingly unrelated factors came together and resulted in a bent airplane. It started when we were deiced in Butte, resulting in a smudged windshield. Inbound to Seattle, we called for a window wash. I made a nice Flaps 15 landing and lowered the nosewheel softly; although I didn't realize it, the nosewheel strut did not compress fully.
At the parking spot, one of our ramp supervisors placed a wheeled ladder against the airplane to do the window wash. These ladders have padded handrails to prevent damage, but there are some sharp corners lower on the ladder. When it was first positioned, these corners were several inches below and away from the curved side of the airplane. The problem arose when enough passengers boarded to cause the nose strut to finally compress. The nose of the airplane sank several inches onto a corner of the ladder, which caused a nasty gash in the skin.
The airplane was taken out of service; fortunately, another airplane was available to get us on our way. I don't know how anybody could've foreseen this occurence; the ramp supervisor certainly wasn't negligent. Given the sensitivity of the ground damage issue these days, I was a little worried that he'd be tarred and feathered, despite being one of the friendliest and hardest working ramp sup's we have anywhere. It sounds like the company is dealing with it pretty reasonably, though.
Given how strong our airplanes are to structural loads, it can be alarming to see how susceptible their aluminum skin is to gouging and tearing. Fortunately, there aren't many things in the sky that gouge or tear, so we just have to look out for bag loaders and sharp edged ladders on the ground.