Towing Tribulations

Tony Vasko looks back on trying times in towing aircraft.

Towing aircraft with tractors has been part of the industry from the days since they got too big to push or pull around by hand and back muscle. I recently saw a picture of a group manhandling no less than a B737 NG on, what I hope for their sake, was a flat ramp so the old strong-arm procedures will still work in a pinch. I have also seen a charity pull of a B757 where teams from around the airport competed with each other in who could pull the aircraft the farthest in a given amount of time. Admittedly, it can be done but generally, a tractor is easier.

Towing can be an easy task, a hair-raising ordeal through an obstacle course, or it can be downright miserable in bad weather. On a bright sunny day, it’s easy to look good at the wheel of a rumbling iron monster pushing a loaded B747 back with effortless ease. It can be less fun even with vigilant wing walkers to keep watch to thread the aircraft backwards through a narrow taxi lane at a busy terminal.

Stupid things do happen. A B727 was nosed into a corner gate at a station where I was manager. My three mechanics were standing by for departure with the tug and towbar already hooked up. The driver was in the cab but the two wing walkers, clad in parkas and yellow rain gear, stood under the wings — a near-freezing rain was slicing down. The jetway came off and the tug driver blinked the headlights indicating they were ready to push back. The wing walkers, who act as the safety men, spread out and waved their lighted wands indicating it was clear to start pushing.

Well, there were no obstacles at the wingtips but there was a catering truck just finishing up at the rear galley door. The aircraft went back a few feet and crunched its inboard flap against the truck. With the driving, cold rain, the safetymen had not raised their heads to look. Try to explain that one on the companywide morning briefing.

Most tows are short pushbacks from the gate onto the tarmac so the aircraft can taxi. Others are considerably longer, involving taking an aircraft from the terminal to the maintenance hangar often miles away. Again, weather makes a difference. An open tug on a sunny day is like being in a sports car with the top down. A very expensive sports car at that. Still, there can be disappointing moments even on the clearest and best days. For instance, while towing a B707 to the hangar, I noticed the airplane nose had caught up with me and was trying to pass me. This was upsetting to say the least as he should have been behind me at the end of the towbar.

Towbars which couple the tug to the aircraft are equipped with shear pins which let go if an excessive load is put on them. This prevents you from tearing the nose gear out of the aircraft. Unfortunately the shear pins also often failed from fatigue, which is what had happened here. The aircraft was rolling on its own, and I was dragging a long and now useless tube behind me that wasn’t attached any longer to the aircraft. The intercom cable naturally had snapped and so my frantic call of “brakes” to the mechanic in the aircraft were not heard. All I could do was accelerate and try to get out in front so he could see me. Fortunately, he did notice and with the sight of a big yellow towbar tube bouncing behind my tug, he figured out what happened and applied the brakes before he ran off into the sand.

I notified ground control of our little difficulty using the tug radio (B707 had no APUs installed, hence had no radio working). Naturally, the spare shear pin that was supposed to be attached to the bar was missing, but a Phillips screwdriver made a useful substitute and I reassembled the head to the towbar, hooked up and we were off once again.

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