Memories Of Ground Support Equipment

Ground support equipment has been a part of flight since the Wright Brothers began flying.

It was powered by a falling weight. I have never seen anything on how they got that weight up the tower. But there it was. They used it for many years before engines grew powerful enough to allow unboosted takeoff.

They had no need for fuel or oil trucks since the amounts of fuel and oil were small by today’s standards. Ground power? Well yes, they did use a battery to tickle the ignition to get things going. Pneumatics and air conditioning? Not needed. Access stands? Maybe a ladder or two.

It pretty much stayed that way for some years after. But by World War I there were fuel trucks and an invaluable aid to starting aircraft – the Hucks Starter. It was a truck fitted with an overhead shaft that engaged a dog in the propeller hub.

Aircraft towbars of a crude sort also came about in World War I, but there were no dedicated designs for tow tractors. A truck was good enough and most of the time the airplanes were pushed around by hand.

By the end of the war there were some pretty respectable-sized bomber aircraft. Access stands became a necessity. The big biplane airliners grew out of them. These featured fabric covering which meant you were not going to go walking on the wings.

The engines were also many feet above the ground that stalky stands of sufficient height made of welded tubing came into being. The pleasure of working off a platform stand as compared to an A-frame ladder is indescribable. You have a place to put your tools and equipment and you are not in danger of falling off.

Like everything else, World War II changed everything that came before and after. Ground equipment and commercial aviation, for that matter, really started to come into its own afterward. (You can read more about that in our cover story starting on page 8.)

A lot of early commercial flights were done with seaplane airliners commonly known as flying boats. This aircraft required a whole different set of “ground” support equipment. There was a need for boats, of course, to tow aircraft, in fact, just to get out to them when they were on a mooring.

A fuel boat was needed, too, although often they just carried drums and a hurdy-gurdy or a wobble pump for the ground people to pump the fuel up. I knew a Pan Am mechanic who mourned a lot of lost tools now rusting at the bottom of Flushing Bay off the La Guardia’s seaplane terminal. They tied strings to them when possible so as not to lose them if dropped.

One other piece of ground equipment that was unique was a big wheeled cradle. At La Guardia Airport, it ran on rails built into the ramp leading from the big hangar to the seaplane ramp and down into the water of Flushing Bay.

The cradle would go down until it was submerged and then the big flying boat was gingerly pulled into it. The cradle and all were pulled from the water and the whole shebang pulled into the hangar for servicing. The rails and ramp were still there in the 1950s.

Back on the ramp there was the problem of handling baggage and passengers. Carts were used for the bags and freight and strong arms and backs humped them into the aircraft. Some aircraft like the Ford Trimotors had baggage bins in the wings, a bottom surface lowering down to reveal a bin for loading. No loader lifters, no belt loaders, just stands and strong arms.

In most cases, loading passengers was easy. You opened a door to the ramp, pointed out the plane visible through the wind and rain, passed out umbrellas and let them go for it. The airplanes were low to the ramp so only a small step stand was needed to get them up. Even the classic DC-3 only required four or five steps.



By the 1930s, there grew a need for ground power. 12V DC was initially used. Later 24V DC became the standard. Aircraft engines could be started off the ship’s battery, but that left you with a depleted battery at the beginning of the flight. The easiest answer were battery carts, literally big batteries on a wheeled cart to be taken out, the lead plugged into the aircraft and the power supplied for the engine start.

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