Ruminations from the Ramp
The Bomb Went Off
By Tony Vasko
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.
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