Head for Heights

Necessity has called for high altitudes while servicing aircraft.


As one with no particular head for heights, I often found myself up in the air and I don’t mean when flying. Life being what it is, I fathered a daughter who married a rock climber and the two together nonchalantly climb rock faces. Our 5-and-half-year-old granddaughter also scampers up, although carefully belayed by mom and dad. Me, I get that odd tingling feeling in the back of my knees when approaching overlooks in the mountains. However, necessity calls at times and so I have found myself on wingtips of aircraft or even in a few cases, atop the fuselage without benefit of safety devices. I hasten to say these were all in the bad old pre-OSHA days.

Aircraft come in odd shapes with protruding tails and wings and the fuselages are rounded and much of it is made of easily damaged materials. Also, designers persist in putting equipment in odd places. Such was the anti-collision light (rotating beacon) on the Constellations, which were added in the mid-50s. They were placed on top and bottom of the fuselage.

The bottom had no access problem, but they were not well sealed and the two bulbs rotating inside the red glass cover sometimes looked like a mixer stirring a blend of water, hydraulic fluid and oil. The top one however had cleverly been placed over the wing. This prevented any of the available access stands and ladders of the day — no cherry pickers then. Also, no one had thought to cut a hole through the top skin so you could change the bulbs from inside the cabin. That came later on the jets.

These things always failed at the terminal on the infamous dark and windy nights, usually with a little rain. No way out of it, so one of us would load our pocket with spare bulbs and a screwdriver and go up the passenger boarding stairs. The passenger door on the Connie was aft of the wing, so you went inside. The galley was right there and with some help you were boosted up, got the right foot atop the galley work surface, the rest of you outside and with some help, went up on top of the fuselage. You could lay there for a second and admire the beautiful curve of the Connie’s fuselage but then, on your belly, you worked yourself forward along the top until you reached the infamous light. It was only a few minutes to service it, being careful not to drop any screws or, heaven forbid, the lens cover. Once installed, you would signal to have it tested, work backwards toward the pax door and again, with some help, slide off the top onto the stand.

Douglas on their DC-4/DC-6/DC-7 put their anti-collision light on the tippy tip of the vertical fin. This we could reach directly with a fly ladder. This was a two-section ladder attached to a wheeled triangular support base. The lower ladder was fixed and leaning at a 60-degree angle. The upper section or fly ladder could be extended by a cable. Of course the more it was extended, the more flexible it becomes. Add a mechanic in winter gear, and it was quite lively — so is a DC-6 on the ramp in windy conditions. Try re-lamping the light as it moves a foot or two while standing on a long springy ladder. You have to synchronize your actions between the aircraft bobbing and moving left and right, and you atop the ladder which moves with the wind too. Well, at least it wasn’t me up the ladder who put a hole in the fabric-covered rudder of a DC-6 when a wind gust threatened to topple him and the fly ladder over.

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