Ruminations from the Ramp
Loading Bridges and Inflatables
By Tony Vasko
I deplaned at Newark the other day arriving back from Zurich and took a connecting flight out two hours later. Newark was an old, well-remembered acquaintance of mine as I used to be the Maintenance Manager for Eastern there. What caught my attention this day was the condition of the interior of one of the loading bridges. The wall panels were damaged and appeared to have been bulged back toward the outer skin. I smiled when I saw that as it brought back a memory of an incident at another airport.
With the advent of the requirement for inflatable evacuation slides, a new source of problems and delays emerged. Girt bars wouldn't latch into the floor locks and occasionally slides would fall off the door--which was somewhat disconcerting to the passengers. With widebodies it became necessary to power the cabin doors open. On the L-1011 and DC-10, the doors go up into the ceiling and this required assist devices. On Boeing and Airbus aircraft they opened outward in the good old time-honored way. These, too, were powered by assist devices. The power assist for the door can be dangerous.
Most of the time you want to open the door without the emergency opening device working and certainly without the slide deploying and inflating. On the other hand when it's an emergency you expect it to open and blow. To accomplish this they put an ARM-DISARM lever either on the door or adjacent to the door. In the DISARM position the door operated without the slide blowing, usually.
The early B-747s were notorious for blowing slides. Procedures and discipline were introduced to ensure that the slides (and the emergency door opening) were DISARMED before anyone tried to open the door to let the passengers out. At Kennedy, Eastern Air Lines finally got a few loading bridges after a long winter and spring of deplaning passengers into the snow and rain using motorized steps. These loading bridges were finicky and temperamental, being the first products of a Canadian company that was breaking into the business. They were also the last loading bridges that company built. After a few experiences with them we ordered new ones from more established companies. In the interim we had to live with them.
One fine afternoon the B-747 flight from Miami arrived, and the agent struggled to get the loading bridge lined up with the door. Around 350 passengers from Miami waited patiently to deplane. Those flight attendants on that run know how patient New Yorkers can be about deplaning. It was not that agent's day at all. He backed and twisted the controls and finally got the loading bridge aligned. In line with the procedures he knocked on the cabin door to signal the flight attendant. The flight attendant inside had disarmed the slide per instructions but unknown to her, the linkage had failed.
When she moved the handle, the agent outside was ready to assist by pulling on the door and swinging it back. The B-747 door is big. He was not needed however as the door assist bottle discharged and compressed gas opened the door. He managed to avoid being the meat in the sandwich as that door swung out and around against the fuselage. He then had to be damn agile and quick besides for the evacuation slide did its thing. It inflated and one must remember that the early B-747 had a small rocket-motor device inside that ignited and provided the mass of gas needed to fill the long slide. That slide came ripping and tearing down that loading bridge tunnel with the agent two steps in front of the wall of fabric. The slide tore up and burst the wall panels inside the loading bridge tunnel. The "patient" passengers had to wait a little longer. And that was the source of my smile this January at Newark. I recognized the signs of a deployed slide in the tunnel.
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