Adversity Spurs Innovation

It takes a crisis to start the little gray cells working. When fuel was 25 cents a gallon, we taxied airplanes around with abandon. Airport and airways congestion meant long lines of jets waiting their turn to take off, trails of heat shimmering behind...

There are certainly added benefits to towing aircraft to and from runways and terminals aside from the obvious saving in Jet A. There will be a definite reduction in aircraft noise, ground vehicles being a lot quieter than aircraft turbines. There are political consequences, too. I became maintenance manager at an airport that had a vocal residential community located just across an open body of water from my airline’s terminal. On turning into the gates, the jet nozzles pointed directly at them. There was no doubt that the noise of our jets taxiing in and out of the gates carried across to them. Their town council and their state representatives proposed some Draconian legislation mandating that we would have to tow all aircraft in and out of the terminal and part way to the runway. Because of the layout of the ramps, the other airline’s terminals were around a corner and so their noise did not impinge on the community. Only my airline would have been so affected. There were some intense negotiations and lobbying, and ultimately the legislation was dropped just shortly before I transferred there. I was pleased to find I had just had a new office clerk added to my staff, as did several other departments in the airline. This was in spite of a hiring freeze that was being rigidly enforced. I was less pleased to find that attendance was not rigorously kept by these folks, nor was there any need to hold them to regular hours. There were also familial blood ties between them and some of the state legislators and town councilmen. No doubt it was completely coincidental. I finally lost the clerk when she decided that it was more pleasant to work at the race track than around a grubby maintenance department. And so it goes in some communities. Noise abatement can take many forms.

I also note that Airbus is investigating installation of drive motors in aircraft landing gear so that the pilots could motor out or in on aux power without use of the main engines. An intriguing concept for sure, but doubtful that it will pay to burn fuel on every flight to haul around a considerable mass of motors and electric cables in order to save fuel by not taxiing under main-engine power.

No doubt GSE manufacturers will benefit from a move to more towing. They will, however, gain a lot if they can prevail on the aircraft manufacturers to get a more universal and standardized means of attaching tugs to aircraft. Then, too, decisions will have to be made as to who steers and controls the joined vehicles. Fifty years ago AMF produced a unit that coupled to the main gear and actually drove a pair of aircraft wheels. It could reach impressive speeds and was controlled by the aircraft captain using a remote box on the end of a long cable. Many aircraft nowadays have no opening on cockpit windows so that concept of passing up a cable and control box would have to be revisited. But with the price of fuel only trending upward, it will pay for GSE companies to apply their little gray cells.

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