Shop Talk

Looking for the creature comforts and lightened workloads that usually come hand-in-hand with seniority, Tony reflects on a GSE industry where that simply is not the case.


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.

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