As a result, Bill looked at electric and liquid propane to power its GSE fleet. “The propane LP looked almost better than batteries,” Bill says, “but no airport authority would want LP storage tanks anywhere near its property.”
So electric it was. Bill started buying the first of 600 electric bag tractors made by Lansing-Bagnall, a UK-based material handling manufacturer. Although the tractors were distributed throughout Eastern’s network, the majority went to Atlanta.
“We were leaders in the world at that time with the electric equipment,” Bill adds. “The only other airline at that point to operate so much electric GSE was British Airways at Heathrow.”
While the scuttlebutt remains to this day that electric equipment costs more than the price tag of new gas or diesel GSE, today’s would-be e-GSE buyers can sleep easy compared to a pioneer like Bill. The electric equipment he was purchasing was two times the price of comparable fossil fuel models.
“We always were asked by the finance department, ‘Can’t you do this another way to save money?’ But we could always prove the value in going with electric GSE,” Bill explains.
While there certainly was a savings in fuel costs, Bill says the maintenance costs was where the higher upfront costs more than justified the decision to go electric.
“Time and time again, we could show that our cost to maintain electric GSE was two-thirds the cost to maintain the same type of equipment that ran on diesel or gas,” Bill adds.
With the bag tractors in place, Bill next turned his attention to electric pushbacks. And here’s where his SAE friend, Ed Shaffrey, had an idea.
Ed figured a modified version of his electric mining equipment might do the trick. Built low to the ground, Bill figured the same way.
“It was perfect in every way,” Bill explains, “but the main problem was the articulated front end.
For a pushback, the equipment needs to provide a straight push.
“And at the time, every pushback operation required a tow bar,” he adds. “There was no such thing as towbarless – not even close.”
The two met a few times and even jotted down some design improvements on a napkin over dinner. About six months later, Ed showed Bill a prototype. There were still a couple of tweaks needed. The accelerator was too close to the brake and the steering radius wasn’t quite right.
Finally, Ed’s company shipped a model to Atlanta that Bill put to a 30-day test. The model was stationed at a gate at the end of a terminal that had a 2-3 percent slope going away from the gate and that required a skillful turn.
Bill put the pushback through its paces, but finally the big day came when he would demo it for the airline’s top brass.
“I was as nervous as I could be considering all the big bosses were there,” Bill adds not sure if Frank Borman, himself, was present.
But all Bill and Ed’s work to develop the new electric pushback paid off, and that day’s pushback performed just as well as all the others.
“When the operation was completed, even the pilot got on his intercom and told the operator that that was the smoothest pushback he’d ever had,” Bill says.
Kersey ended up selling Eastern around 40 of its modified electric pushbacks, primarily for its Atlanta hub. As with most GSE, the Kersey pushbacks went on to provide decades of service.
“A few of the vehicles ended up being bought by Alaska Airlines after Eastern went bankrupt,” Bill says. “I know for a fact that some were still in service until just a few years ago. And if you could get parts, they might still be pushing back planes.”
Bill made one more GSE venture while at Eastern. In 1985, he was made operations manager for PRO Inc. Located in Gainesville, GA, the airline’s GSE shop may be the furthest away from the ocean any of Bill’s jobs have taken him.
There Bill was given an 85,000 sq. ft. build-out to outfit a shop to rebuild GSE.
“We built it just like we wanted,” he adds. “We had 20-foot service bays with everything a mechanic would need right there without running all over the place to look for something.”
During his time at PRO, Bill figures he worked will all types companies and models, such as Cochran & Western, TUG, Clark, John Bean Technologies, Aeroplane, Stewart & Stevenson and NMC-Wollard, to name a few.
Winners will be announced at upcoming AviationPros LIVE in March.