Head for Heights

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.

Still, in retrospect, that wasn’t the highest ladder I climbed. As a volunteer fireman, you’ve got to climb them too. The tallest of all was when I was the fire chief and got invited over to the washdown of a new hook and ladder truck at an adjoining fire department. Washdowns are like baptisms, celebrating a new truck into the department. This department had acquired a new 100-foot ladder truck. They had it parked against a tall building with its ladder fully extended. It is a tradition to test fire chiefs and, of course, I was asked if I wouldn’t want to climb it. Of course! Why had I come except to climb their new ladder? I gave my mug of beer to someone to hold and went up. Oh Lord, it was high but chiefs can show no hesitation so I went to the top, patted the top rung and came down to earth again. Yet, that 100-footer was not as bad as the fly ladder on the ramp. It was sturdier and was leaning against the building, so it was not nearly as flexible. One rather flexible unit was a 100-foot cherry picker we had at Kennedy. Stupidly, while training one of my tech supervisors in its use, he asked if he could take it up all the way. The view was superb, I admit, but the wind blowing off Hangar 9 made it sway. It is surprising how small the base truck below looks from 100 feet. I think I wrote about this once before and how the fuel ran out when we were up about 70 feet or so, stranding us there.

Think now how easy it is to service an aircraft with pressure fueling. Some piston aircraft had as many as 10 tanks. Filling was by gravity. Position the truck, put up the ladder to gain access to top of wing, hump heavy nozzle and hose up and stretch out to the top of the wing. Some Connies had a 600 US gallon tip tank out there. If there was frost on the wing, you got down on hands and knees while dragging the hose. Then, open the fuel cap on top of the wing, ground nozzle,insert into hole and fill and let fly. Periodically, check the quantity if it wasn’t to be a full tank by inserting a dipstick. Heady vapors from the aromatic fuels such as 115/145 grade blew back in your face. All this happened atop the wing, wet or dry, frosty or snowing, windy or calm for each flight. And don’t forget the engine oil. A long way down and despite all the ladder climbing, I was never comfortable in top of wings or tails.

Many of those prehistoric work stands, fly ladders and the like are gone now. They have been replaced by cherry pickers, manlifts and other really neat access devices. I really like the suction plates you can apply to wing skins to provide a firm attachment for a safety harness. It provides one answer to the OSHA requirement for safety when a fall could occur. It is certainly more practical than the suggestion of an OSHA inspector that we drill holes in the wing skin and erect railings around the edge of the wing! It took a lot of explaining to make him understand that that wings were not built the same way as buildings and drilling into them was not a good idea.