The History Of Ground Support Equipment

Our magazine may be into just its first generation, but look how far the aviation industry went in only its first two. Just 50 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the British Overseas Airways Corp. began operating the first passenger jet service.

And consider how much the industry changed in little more than the following two generations:

In 1958, for example, more people crossed the Atlantic by ship than plane. In the United States, the 10 largest transportation companies were all railroads. Less than one in 10 Americans had ever even been on an airplane. The notion of “how far” it was from New York to Los Angeles was measured in days. Hawaii drew just 171,000 visitors.

With that in mind, here are some milestones in GSE development:

1705 – The Goldhofer family starts a forge in Amendingen, Germany.

1811 – Friedrich Krupp starts casting steel.

1860 – What eventually will become TLD begins with a silk-weaving business in Lyon, France.

1883 – John Bean invents a continuous spray pump to battle bugs on his 10-acre almond orchard and the Bean Spray Pump Co. is born.

1891 – Brothers August and Joseph Thyssen start out with a coal mine and steelworks.

At the start of the 1900s, Earl Estes starts the Dixie Manufacturing Co. The company’s original product line includes horse collars and saddles. You no doubt recognize many of these other surnames, but what about Earl Estes? We’ll pick up his story in another 70-some years.

1903 – Wilbur Wright becomes the world’s first ramp agent. This year marks 110 years since Orville Wright took off from the sand at Kill Devil Hills aboard the Wright Flyer into a freezing headwind of 27 miles per hour and flew about 35 yards.

Take a look at one of history’s most famous photos above, and you can see much more of Wilbur than Orville as the Wright Flyer makes its maiden voyage.

A closer look, however, reveals the picture also shows a work bench and a jumble of something to the right of the bench.

That turns out to be world’s first “GPU” and “chocks.” We found out more about the details at an EAA Web site on vintage aircraft:

“On the right end of the airplane’s foot-printed outline is a small footstool or bench, with a large C-clamp lying across the center support of the bench,” H.G. Frautschy writes. “Ken Hyde of the Wright Experience believes they used the clamp to gently secure the wingtip of the machine to the bench, to prevent the Flyer from rocking too much from side to side in the breezy conditions as they prepared it for flight.

“To the bench’s right, there is the starting battery, with its kinky, stiff wire sticking out of the wooden box. It was used to start the engine of the Flyer, which was also equipped with a Splitdorf dynamo. A battery was needed to supply enough electricity to generate a spark within the primitive make-or-break ignition system used for the engine. There’s also a shovel and a small can, which, according to “The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright” edited by Marvin W. McFarland, contained “nails, tacks and a hammer in it, for emergency repairs.”

1914 – The “aeroplane” is just starting to see military service at the start of World War I. Over the next four years, the plane graduates from reconnaissance missions to bombing runs. The Hucks Starter, an auxiliary power unit that provides the initial start-up power to piston engines, proves that machines replacing workers isn’t anything new. (There’s a picture of a Hucks Starter in Tony Vasko’s column on page 24.)

1917 – C.C. Hobart, along with his wife, Lou Ella, and their three sons, Edward, Charles and William, starts what will become Hobart Brothers. The company makes generators, metal office furniture and air compressors.

1918 – Pilots buzz rural America as “barnstorming” becomes popular entertainment.

All a daredevil pilot needs is an open field to land on, in other words, the first farm he spots. After cutting a deal with the farmer, the pilot performs various stunts for the crowd.

Meanwhile, the farmer could lend an extra hand with his tractor. Which, of course, is why even to this day, we refer to an aviation towing vehicle as a “tractor.”

Farm tractors prove a reliable source for aircraft towing throughout most the early days of aviation.

Meanwhile, James L. Entwistle, electrical engineer and MIT prof, starts the Entwistle Co.

1923 – Clark Tructractor Co., better known today as forklift manufacturer, Clark Material Handling Co., builds the Duat tow tractor to pull trailer loads of lumber, freight and industrial material. This workhorse, shown on page 15 could be a distant relative to today’s vehicles.

1926 – The American Brattice Cloth Corp. opens and sells flame-proof cloth cut to order for the mining industry. Some 60 years later, ABC Industries is known for ducting materials and other GSE products.

Godtfred Vestergaard starts his business at his home outside Copenhagen, Denmark. The company’s original product is an aluminum mold for constructing mattresses. Later, the company starts making lifts for a university.

1928 – Two years after founding Kato Engineering, owners Elmer Jensen and Louis Wilkinson hire Cecil Jones who develops a rotary converter that lets rural families operate AC appliances with DC storage batteries.

1929 – Regent Manufacturing sets up shop.

1933 – J.C. Gorman and H.E. Rupp, two engineers out of work during the Great Depression, begin making pumps in a barn outside of Mansfield, OH. Their competitors ridicule their first line of “non-clogging” pumps. The company goes on to report $359 million in sales for 2011.

Clifford Hannay starts out with a few lathes and establishes what will become Hannay Reels. Company remains owned and managed by the 4th generation of the Hannay family.

1935 – E.P. “Ed” Grime starts the Malabar Machine Co. making items from customer drawings. In just a few years, Lockheed asks Grime to build the first tripod jacks specifically for aircraft.

1939-1945 – Aviation has an enormous impact on the course of World War II and the war has just as significant an impact on aviation. The United States has 3,600 military aircraft when Hitler marches into Poland in 1939. By the end of the war, U.S. military aircraft production reaches nearly 300,000 – turning out more than 96,000 aircraft at peak production in 1944.

Of course, the whole world is arming itself. As a result of all this aircraft, we finally begin to see a real market for GSE or, as the U.S. military refers to it to this day, the “forgotten enabler.”

We start recognizing more names of well-known manufacturers:

  • The Northwestern Motor Company – the “NMC” of NMC-Wollard – introduces a tow tractor.
  • During the war, Stewart & Stevenson builds hundred of tractors and self-propelled bomb ordnance loaders for the U.S. Air Force.
  • Hobart Brothers produces 100,000 welders and 45,000 generators to support the war receiving the Army/Navy E Award for its efforts.
  • Columbus Jack of Columbus, OH, gets its start selling most of its production to the military fighting World War II (and later the Korean War).
  • Ford, as just an example of other automotive makers, bulks up its 9N tractor with cast-iron. Approximately 10,000 of these tractors dubbed Moto-Tugs see duty.
  • By this time John Bean’s company was known as FMC (“Food Machinery Corp.”). In 1941, FMC designed and built amphibious landing craft. While not GSE, the contract helped the company gain a foothold in the military GSE market.

The David Clark Co. provides one of the more interesting stories in the aviation industry at this point. The company’s first products are griddles and bras, but by the war years it specializes in pressurized suits for the Air Force and, later, space suits for all NASA missions. (The company also made the suit Felix Baumgartner used last October to jump from 24 miles above the earth.)

1945-1959 – Commercial aviation starts to take off. By this time, a host of international GSE manufacturers begin building specialized equipment:

  • Hobart Brothers sets up Hobart Ground Power after American Airlines asks the company to design a generator to start larger aircraft engines.
  • Air-A-Plane begins manufacturing PCA units.
  • Douglas Equipment opens.
  • Davis Taylor builds an electric cart for his own use in his poultry supply business. After numerous requests for the vehicle, he starts the Taylor Shop. Fred Dunn joins Davis Taylor’s business in 1951, and several years later the company changes its name to Taylor-Dunn Manufacturing Co.
  • Garsite, LLC starts manufacturing aircraft refuelers, hydrant dispensers, fuel delivery trucks, above-ground fuel storage tanks, aviation fueling systems and vacuum pumper trucks.
  • Tracma begins making tractors designed for aircraft towing to replace commonly used farm tractors. The name of the company becomes synonymous with “tractor” in French-speaking countries in the same way “tug” will be used in the United States.
  • ACE starts business making test equipment for the aviation industry, but also expands into GSE.
  • An airport manager and a friend of Axel Ackerman, who started out fixing automotive electrical systems in 1924, asks Axel to make a small 28V DC rectifier for starting small aircraft. The AXA Power unit works trouble-free for another three decades.
  • Joe Cochrane creates Cochrane Airport Systems to build the first belt loaders specifically for the aviation industry - a natural since he was already making similar lettuce-packing loaders. The company eventually expands into cargo loaders and, after an ownership change, becomes known as Lantis Corp.
  • L.W. (Lu) Taylor and Harold Higbee start Enfab Inc. Innovative engineering leads to the creation of a proprietary fiberglass filter coalescer. The company is eventually renamed Velcon Filters.
  • Albret gets its start making maintenance platforms and aircraft docking systems. Later, the company adds passenger stairs.
  • Jim Kaplan starts Harlan Corp. to rent and rebuild lift trucks. Kaplan realizes that the parts most common to fail are not readily available so he redesigns the parts and develops sources for new designs. Ten years later, one of his customers in Venezuela asks Kaplan to make him a tow tractor. Harlan buys a Model E Clark lift and re-engineers it. Eventually, the company grows from building 10 tractors a month to 90.
  • Stewart & Stevenson enters the GSE business with GM Detroit Diesel.
  • Glen Cummins Sr. goes to work as the general manager of Berglund Motor Co.’s new division, Engine Distributors Inc., to distribute Ford Motor Co.’s industrial gasoline engines. Glen rises through the ranks and eventually becomes vice president as EDI reps more engine lines. In 1983, he buys the company. Today, his son and two grandsons own and operate EDI.

Undoubtedly, the 1950s close on a high note for GSE. The first passenger boarding bridges in the United States are installed at San Francisco International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in 1959.

1960 – SCHOPF introduces its first aircraft tow tractor.

Engineers at FMC Corporation start building some of the first deicer vehicles that used aerial devices to spray aircraft. John Bean’s spray pump serves as the foundation. Its early deicers could deice a plane in 15 minutes. FMC also develops a cargo handling system for the new containerized generation of jet aircraft. The self-propelled Flite-Line Loader allows one person to unload a plane’s full cargo of containerized baggage in just 15 minutes.

S.L. Parker opens a metal fabricating business called Parker Industries making garbage containers under the trade name “Par-Kan.”

Clyde W. Olson starts Clyde Machines Inc. and begins making hydraulic motors for tampers used by utility companies.

Unitron starts supplying the defense-aerospace, aviation and industrial markets with GPUs, PCAs and other power systems.

1962 – Richard Stern and Yves Helleboid form Devtec to distribute and service GSE outside of the United States. Much later, Devtec becomes TLD Asia and TLD America.

1963 – U.S. Airmotive GSE begins providing a full line of GSE parts and supplies for the industry.

1966 – Bud Bushnell buys the manufacturing rights to a material lift operated with compressed air. Customers are impressed with the “magic in the bottle” and Genie Industries gets its name.

SAS asks the Vestergaard Co. to modify some existing aircraft deicers. As a result, Vestergaard wins an order for new aircraft deicers. The “Beanstalk,” as it’s informally called, consists of a vertical, telescopic tower with a platform on top from which the operator applied fluid with a spray gun.

Harold G. Hall opens Hall Industries as a contract screw machine shop.

1967 – Lektro, which pioneered the electric golf cart, produces a small electric aircraft tug for a Oregon FBO using a chassis originally built for an eclectic cart for area mink ranchers.

1968 – Robert Watkins starts General Transervice Inc., an airport refueler maintenance company at PHL. GTI later develops the Rampmaster, a modular design that simplifies maintenance by separating the truck from the fuel tank.

1969 – Eagle Tugs introduces its bobtail cargo tractor, a model still in production.

John L. Grove forms a partnership with two friends and buys a small metal fabrication business in McConnellsburg, PA. The company sells its first JLG lift.

1970 – Remember Earl Estes and Dixie Manufacturing, which started back in the 1900s catering to the horse and buggy market? Robert Smith buys the company, now known as Estex, from the founder’s widow. Smith grew up near ATL and figures the company’s textile products could expand into the aviation industry. Products include baggage cart side curtains and covers. Delta Air Lines becomes its first customer and remains a major account.

The Dana Corp.’s flight department starts Danair. It first products were towbars for corporate jets. Danair is sold in 1980 and becomes Tronair.

1972 – ITW Military GSE begins specializing in military GSE.

Paul MacCready, an avid aviator who set soaring records in his glider in the 1940s, starts AeroVironment Inc. The company becomes a leader in unmanned aircraft and eventually well-known for electric GSE charging stations.

MacCready also makes the history books again in 1977 when the Gossamer Condor, becomes the first aircraft powered solely by the pilot’s muscles. Later, the Gossamer Albatross flies across the English Channel.

SAGE Parts opens to distribute parts and service throughout the world for the GSE industry.

Trilectron begins manufacturing GSE.

Beta Fluid Systems starts producing military refueling equipment and then expands in the commercial market. Liquip International, which has 40 years of international refueling expertise, acquires Beta in 2006.

1973 – TUG Manufacturing Corp. starts making its eponymous “tugs,” namely, the Model MA, which is still produced today.

1975 – David Clark Co. introduces the first headset specifically designed to provide hearing protection for pilots while providing clear, isolated reception and transmission at normal voice levels inside noisy aircraft. Ground support models follow.

1976 – Nicky Ghaemmaghami establishes Hydraulics International, which goes on to specialize in military GSE.

1979 – Jim Watkins starts WASP, Inc. (Watkins Aircraft Support Products) in Alexandria, MN. In a news article published in 1981, Watkins says, “Our first year of business we had just one customer, now we have 10. We feel we can provide a lot of jobs and bring other investment money into our community.” In 1980, sales were $280,000. One year later, sales topped $1 million. Jim turns out to be right about those jobs - currently, six employees have each worked at WASP for 30 years. Watkins ends up building another plant in Nebraska. By 1996, sales grow to $33 million, and Jim sells the company to his employees in 1997.

1980s – Tracma and Air France introduce the first towbarless tractor.

Charlatte SA, which started 20 years before machining metal parts, creates Charlatte Menutention and becomes a leader in electric GSE throughout Europe.

1981 – Vestergaard builds a new type of deicer, the Elephant Alpha, equipped with the now familiar telescopic spray boom.

1983 – Fortbrand Services starts serving the GSE industry, but also expands into selling airfield equipment.

Hugh I. Hunt opens Ground Support Products, specializing in tires, rollers and casters.

1987 – FCX Systems, Inc. starts to design and manufacture solid-state frequency converters.

ERMA get its start selling GSE to Airbus.

After decades of manufacturing heavy equipment for the construction and transportation industries, Goldhofer introduces a towbarless tractor.

1987 – Matt Sheehan starts AERO Specialties, a manufacturer and distributor of new and used GSE throughout the world.

1989 – Jamie Kaplan joins Harlan Corp. as president. Jamie develops the company’s low profile tractor that remains the company’s highest-volume product.

1990s – George Prill publishes the first issue of GSE Today in February 1992.

Jim and Jamie Kaplan hire George Revere to help improve Harlan Corp.’s business operations and market strategies. Since the late-1990s the company has expanded its product line into the electric GSE market.

After working for various refueling companies for some 20 years, Terry Bosserman starts selling refuelers from his house. A year later, Bosserman Aviation Equipment gets its own address.

TLD creates its GSE division and acquires Tracma, Albret Industrie, Erma, Devtec (in the United States and in Asia) and Lantis. By the end of the decade, TLD decides to specialize in GSE and sells its aeronautical equipment division.

Charlatte expands to the U.S. market and opens Charlatte of America.

Elite Line Services begins providing GSE and airport equipment maintenance.

Phoenix Metal Products, Inc. begins designing and manufacturing GSE.

Ground Support Specialist LLC, starts manufacturing and remanufacturing GSE.

A.T. Juniper’s commercial engine wash system originated from the military wash rigs Juniper designed in the 1980s. The rigs were first trailed commercially in the early 1990s at Gatwick Airport with Virgin Atlantic using shepherd’s hook type washing probes directing the washing solution into the booster from positions behind the fan.

Stephen Parker, expands Par-Kan into GSE and other equipment for the aircraft industry.

Patrick G. O’Brien starts MCM Engineering Inc. O’Brien was the chief engineer for well-known GSE companies such as Hobart Brothers, Devtec (now TLD) and McCormick-Morgan before starting MCM.

Premier Engineering & Manufacturing Inc. enters the deicing arena initially servicing a line of deicers that Premier’s founder Jerry Derusha had helped build. Shortly after starting, Premier builds its own line of deicers and receives a contract for 64 units from United Airlines.

Alan J. Janis and Bruce K. Wayne open J&B Aviation Services Inc. The company initially capitalizes on its design for 400 Hz cable assembly, but expands extensively into other GSE, including PCA, baggage chutes and air-starts.

The Northwestern Motor Co. buys Wollard Airport Equipment Co.’s broad line of GSE. In 2000, the company becomes known as NMC-Wollard.

FMC buys Jetway Systems, the original creator of apron drive passenger boarding bridges, and the world’s leading manufacturer of boarding bridges, solid state 400Hz inverters and fixed PCA. FMC also bolsters its airport equipment division with the acquisition of Trump deicers.

Metroplex Conveyor & Services begins fabricating and installing safety/maintenance and production platforms, and modifying and servicing machinery for the bakery and food industry as well as luggage conveyor systems inside airports. As a result of this last relationship, Metroplex develops a PCA hose trolley system that continues to be a large part of the company’s business.

Lektro introduces two new electric vehicles, one for the military and the other for commercial aviation.

Air T buys the Simon Deicer division from Terex and subsequently renames the company Global Ground Support LLC.

The first hybrid-electric tow tractor is tested at the North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, CA. The ISE Research ThunderVolt hybrid tractor used an Entwistle Co. MB-4 tow tractor chassis, and was the first of three such tractors placed into service with the United States Air Force and United States Navy .

1999 – Thyssen AG and Krupp merge to form ThyssenKrupp.

2000 – Illinois Tool Works creates the ITW GSE Ground Services division, which brings together Hobart Ground Power, AXA Power, Trilectron Industries and Air-a-Plane and J&B Aviation.

2001 – Cygnus Business Media buys GSE Today and renames it Ground Support and later Ground Support Worldwide.

FMC Airport Systems re-enters the military market with the design and development of the Halvorsen loader, selected by the USAF to replace all its existing 25K cargo loaders.

2006 – ColumbusJACK acquires Regent Manufacturing.

2008 – John Bean Technologies Corporation (JBT Corporation) is formed, and becomes a publicly listed company on the New York Stock Exchange. FMC Airport Services becomes JBT AeroTech.

2009 – Velcon founder Lu Taylor’s son, Dave, and grandson, Chase, sell company and launch Petroleum Equipment Aviation Refueling.

2012 – Lektro delivers its 3,700 towbarless tractor to DTW.

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