The Bomb Went Off

Ruminations from the Ramp

The Bomb Went Off

By Tony Vasko

June 2001

It seems every issue of the various trade magazines reveals a new type of explosive or drug locator. Some "sniff" for fumes or other exudations, others x-ray and some use, I think, magic. The purpose, of course, is to prevent the baddies of this world from smuggling on some explosive device in the baggage. The consequences of not stopping them is too horrific to think of. Passengers, too, must undergo a search if the magnometer picks up a suspicious amount of metal. Nothing being perfect in this world, some machines will pick up the foil from a pack of breath mints while others seem immune to a pocketful of keys and coins.

It may be difficult for most people to remember there was a time when passengers and crew could board an airplane without the benefit of metal detectors and searches. You could just walk up with your carry-on and present your ticket and board the airplane. No one asked who packed your luggage, if anyone had held it for any time, or if anyone gave you a gift to carry for them.

Setting up and running a security system is an onerous task. At least each situation becomes a go/no-go problem. It’s either a gun, or it’s not and so on. The worst problem occurs when your airline receives a bomb threat. Each threat must be evaluated, and it is no fun for anyone to decide how real it is and what action must be taken. Take one evening at Newark, for example. A bomb threat was called in and it was rated as serious. The plane, an Eastern B-727-225 was already loaded with baggage and fuel at the Newark terminal. Needless to say, passenger loading was stopped and everyone was off-loaded. The ever present Emergency Plan was consulted and required the aircraft to be evacuated and towed to a remote area for a thorough search.

I was the Eastern Maintenance Manager but was already on my way home in those pre-cell phone days so was not in on the process. Procedures called for volunteers from among the employees to actually do the towing. Not surprisingly, there were few volunteers. One of my mechanics said he would drive the tractor and tow the airplane and the captain and first officer said they would ride the brakes. Three New Jersey State troopers probably didn't volunteer but they were in the airplane as well when the lone hero mechanic towed the aircraft off the gate with a T-300 diesel tractor. Off went the airplane on its long journey to a remote area across the field near the Jersey Turnpike. To get there it had to cross the ends of the two parallel runways and most importantly, it had to go a long way.

The tow tractors at Newark usually had an easy time of it. Not for them the long tows to the hangar. We had given up the hangar at Newark as it was of pre-World War II vintage and was more suited to the DC-3 than a big Boeing. The T-300s were simply used for 50-yard pushbacks off the gate and then back to the gate to await the next pushout. The threatened B-727 was pretty heavy with bags and fuel. The diesel could easily cope and it roared heartily but it was going to be a sustained effort. Behind the aircraft trailed a big crash truck just on the off chance that something would happen--like blowing up. The threat, while being rated as serious and being handled very professionally, was not really causing any great worry up on the airplane. The night had come on and the tractor steadily pulled the plane between the rows of blue taxiway lights. Upstairs the troopers were enjoying some airline coffee and a few of the first class meals.

One element should be mentioned. The tractor is very noisy inside. Communication to the flight crew is through an intercom connection that is stretched between tractor and airplane. In this case, all communications to the tower were made by the flight crew upstairs as the tractor tower radio was out. Everything then had to be passed between the tractor driver to the crew upstairs via a rather scratchy link.

"Hold short. Okay, now clear to cross the active." The tower was emphatic and the pilots passed the word over the ground intercom to the mechanic in the tug. He pressed the pedal and the diesel surged with power and its exhaust system, already heated by the long tow to the runway, grew red hot and ignited the thick layer of carbon that had built up inside.

T-300 tractors originally had side-mounted louvers to exhaust the diesels. They were later replaced with vertical stacks. The rear side mounted exhausts of the tractor were not visible to the pilots but the yard-long flames caught the mechanic's attention.

The mechanic made an instant and very good decision. Using the interphone he informed the pilots that the tractor was on fire, that he would pull them across and clear of the runway and when he called "Brakes" they were to park them and he would disconnect the tractor and pull it clear. He cannot be faulted that the message was not really understood because of the intercom's faults and possibly his diction was a little less than perfect under the stress. The tractor surged ahead as the pilots tried to piece together what was up.

Once clear of the runway he called "Brakes" into the interphone, and not waiting for a reply, leaped out of the tractor and ran back to pull the towbar pin. In his haste he neglected to park the tractor brakes. As soon as he pulled the pin, the unmanned tractor with its side exhausts spewing lurid flames and sparks, rolled forward. The intercom cable of course stretched out and broke ending any chance of communication. The mechanic chased the tractor and finally caught up and stopped it.

Meanwhile, the puzzled pilots informed ground control that they seemed to have a little problem but weren't sure of what it was. The crash truck following the aircraft was monitoring the tower frequency of course and heard this and the firemen wondered what was up. Their view was poor since they were behind the airplane but suddenly they spotted the disconnected tractor pulling away from the airplane and spouting sparks and fire (but harmlessly) from the exhausts. This was their call to action and the big truck's engine thundered as it was wheeled left to go around the airplane.

Unfortunately, the driver's attention was diverted by some piece of ILS equipment that served the runway. He swerved the truck to avoid it when a glow filled the cab. The B-727 "tail lights" are actually mounted on the aft end of the wing tips. Why? Well, it is probably because it is difficult to put tail lights in the middle of an engine exhaust. His buddy in the right seat of the cab ducked for his life, literally, for the crash truck had avoided the ground ILS gear only to catch the left wingtip of the airplane. The wingtip crashed through the middle of the windshield and lacerating the back of the down-folded fireman. There was enough velocity and momentum that the wingtip was actually torn off the airplane. It remained in the cab where I saw it later that evening.

The puzzled pilots and the coffee drinking state troopers were also wondering what was happening. They suddenly saw fire under the nose of the airplane and possibly they thought that maybe the bomb was more real than they had imagined. Suddenly the airplane leaped to the right under the force of … well, they didn't know but someone yelled "The bomb’s gone off."

Our hero mechanic had caught the tractor and set the brake. He was gratified to see that the exhaust system, not being heated by a diesel under high load, had cooled enough so that the carbon fire inside the stacks went out in a last shower of sparks. He turned away from the tug and had a grandstand view of the crash truck racing into and tearing off the left wingtip. He saw the airplane give a mighty lurch under the force of the blow and then could only gape as the passenger door opened, the evacuation slide deployed and two pilots and the three state troopers slid down and ran like hell away from the presumably exploding airplane.

The maintenance manager, i.e. me, had by now come home, been informed of the bomb threat and was actually on my way back to the airport. I arrived and was whipped out to the scene. The baggage had been offloaded by now and was being sorted. The airplane was very sad looking and I noted that it was damaged into the main wing structure meaning the repair was going to be lengthy. Fingers were pointing in every direction, stories were garbled and I had a hard time finding out what really happened. I had a few hard things to say about no second person in the tractor.

The injured fireman was off to the hospital. He was very lucky indeed that he was able to duck under the incoming wingtip. My greatest trial was yet to come. Eastern, like most airlines, had a morning system-wide telephone maintenance briefing where the problems of the previous day were hashed out. It was run by the VP in Miami and one of his tasks was to assign the blame and verbally chastise the culprits. Since it was done in front of one’s peers it added a certain flavor to the process. If one was unsuccessful at shifting the blame, then one could only try to mitigate it.

I had a difficult time in explaining this sequence of events over the telephonic conference that morning. Even now it reads like a Keystone Cop script. The laughter from the briefing room in Miami kept on drowning out the story. The result was they forgot to select the designated culprit. The airplane took a week to repair. Oh yes, the fireman sued Eastern (which owned the airplane), the Grimes Company (which made the wingtip light), Boeing (for making the airplane in the first place), the crash truck manufacturer, and even the company that made the ILS equipment his buddy had swerved to avoid. He knew better than to sue the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which only answers to the Creator. I believe he collected enough to make it worthwhile.