Head for Heights

Necessity has called for high altitudes while servicing aircraft.


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.

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