Shop Talk

Working the line is an activity that can stress one's endurance. Rain, snow, sleet, winds, the roar of engines, the frenzy of the ramp when in the midst of a complex with planes arriving and departing make for an invigorating but taxing existence.

Tractors, loaders, fuelers, biffy trucks and water trucks, not to mention the catering (not so numerous these days) vehicles all keep ones head in motion to keep from being run over. On top of this, there is the pressure of on-time departures, hopefully with all the pax and luggage and cargo having gone into the right aircraft. It is no wonder then that as the "romance" of the ramp fades, there comes a desire to work in (maybe) air-conditioned comfort with one's coffee nearby.

In days gone by, seniority prevailed and people bid their way from midnights to afternoons to day shift and from Tuesday and Wednesday off to a piece of the weekend. Eventually, many migrated to some shop where they thought they could contentedly pick at some valve or control box at a bench. Of course shop work is not all that. A lot of GSE equipment comes in very big pieces of machinery and humping a Paymover wheel off, even with the use of dollies, is challenging. Not to mention leaning on a heavy breaker bar with maybe an extension pipe for additional leverage to persuade some nuts to come loose.

Some tasks of course are plain boring. Picture sitting next to a very large tractor tire and drilling holes into the rubber tread. Sounds daft of course since the usual deal is to keep the air inside and drilling holes would appear to be counterproductive. It would be except that the trick was to use a gage and only drill in part way into the big traction knobs on the tread of the tire. The gage, sometimes only some masking tape wrapped around the drill, was set so you didn't go too far in. It was a stinky job too as the drill heated and the rubber smoked in complaint to being drilled. The next step was to use an insertion tool and put in plastic-cased carbide studs. These would, it was fondly hoped, provide the traction needed to make you go in ice even against the weight of a 707 or DC-8 with its engines running.

It even worked sometimes. The carbide studs would bite through the ice and into the underlying concrete or asphalt and give you some traction. Sometimes. Other times it bit in and the concrete spalled and there may yet be some neat trough-shaped depressions at JFK and Newark Airports where I saw those big tractor wheels go round and round like grinders. The tractor and airplane never moved though. The troughs are testaments to the power of the tractor and the durability of the carbide studs. Some Airport Authorities put a stop to their use for obvious reasons.

Putting chains on a big tractor or on any wheel is not fun either. It is less fun out on the ramp in the snow and only slightly better in the shop. They are balky, the patent latches never seem to reach far enough and the chains get twisted and the drip and plop of slush on you makes it among the least favorite tasks.

Tires have their dangers too. Air pressure inside them is relentless in trying to relieve itself. The hubs of large wheels are split and held together with through-bolts. It is absolutely necessary to let ALL the air out before taking the through-bolts out. Removing the valve core of course is best. Many an old timer can relate a horror story of people trying to break down a wheel that still had air pressure inside it.

Servicing tires is also something to exercise caution with. Many now use dry nitrogen to inflate tires. Better than forty years ago I viewed the scene where a GSE mechanic had inflated a bag cart tire directly off a nitrogen bottle. 1800 psi and no regulator. Blood and tissue were on pieces of tire and hub. He survived less the lower part of his face. Several common sense rules were broken here, the first being to always use a reducer/regulator to bring the air pressure down to what you need and no more.

Tune-ups are something one hears little about now. Electronic ignition of course has removed the need to change "points and plugs" regularly. Spark plugs seem to last forever now. Points? Huh!!! The older distributors didn't get the breaker arm and point assembly you dropped in. These had the whole works, the breaker arm and both points mounted on the assembly. You still had to set the point gap of course. The old distributors had the breaker arm with its point as one piece while the ground point was fitted with a screw with a jam nut on it. There was a bent up piece of sheet metal in the distributor that the ground point screwed into. You used a bitty little wrench to remove the old point and then fumbled and swore to get the new point started.

There were some power carts where the distributor was near the built-in cover around the unit, the part of the cover that didn't come off. This meant starting the screwed-in point blind and by feel. Of course you could remove the distributor, replace and set the points on the bench and then install and retime the distributor. But that was for weenies. Besides, you try and find the timing marks on an old engine that has been rebuilt, repainted and beaten up.

I know some mechs who swore by setting the point gap with the cellophane from their cigarette pack rather than using feeler gages. Seems strange now of course but since the engines started and ran it couldn't have been too far off.

Does anyone sandblast and regap spark plug points? That was a regular ritual too. Of course diesel has taken over many units and electric power has made huge inroads and will make even more. That eliminates the whole plugs and points thing.
One problem with pushback tugs is they don't run under heavy load for very long periods. They push back and disconnect and pull back in. The result is their exhausts never get hot enough to cook off some of the crud the engines emit. I know there was at least one tug that had a big stack fire, lots of flame and sparks from having to do a long tow after several years of never going more than 200 yards at a time.

An even more spectacular one was in the exhaust from a emergency generator built into an airline office building down in Miami. Three times a week the engine was started and run for a brief period to prove it was ready. Came the power failure and it kicked in just like the manual said it would. It smoothly picked up the load and grunted and settled down to carry its heavy load. It ran for some hours and the exhaust and muffler, loaded with residue from tri-weekly short runs, started cooking. And combusting. A rather spectacular stack fire forced a shutdown.