Loading Bridges and Inflatables

Ruminations from the Ramp Loading Bridges and Inflatables By Tony Vasko March 2001 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...

One of the funniest sights I was privileged to see naturally involved the B-747. The early birds of that breed were demanding airplanes and stretched the maintenance department's abilities to the utmost. Because of their proclivity for last-minute breakdowns, it was our practice to assign a technical supervisor to each departure. I was sitting in my van as the loading bridge came off. Since the ramp was icy, no engines were started until the big beast was pushed back to the taxi centerline. The tug disconnected and clearance was given and they cranked them up. The rampie on the headset decamped and I took a breath. So far so good. No problems. The right (starboard) side of the plane was presented to me, and I expected it to taxi at any moment. No movement. I drove out on the left side of the aircraft to try to see if the Captain was waving and asked our Ramp Control if they had any call from the flight.

I was trying to see up to the cockpit when the L1 door opened; that's the left most forward door. It opened violently under the impetus of the emergency door opening system. What was surprising was there was a uniformed person desperately clinging to that door handle looking like Harold Lloyd in the old-time thrillers. The slide belched out in a cloud of talcum powder and made itself into, well, a slide. The second officer, for that's who was hanging on the door, flailed around with his legs and finally hooked onto the slide. I could see the Flight Attendant inside collapsed with laughter for one must take what comfort you can for the now inevitable delay.

At the debrief, it developed they had an L1 door warning light on in the cockpit during pushback. The second officer put on his jacket and his hat for it was required that he look competent and official in front of the passengers. He made his way from the cockpit and down the spiral stairs. Disregarding training and placards he "only raised the handle a little way" intending to then slam it down to hopefully extinguish the warning light. The "little way" was enough to initiate the emergency sequence and the emergency door-opening bottle discharged. What made it so funny was his next statement, "I thought I could hold the door closed" which explained why he was still clinging to it as the power assist blew the door open. Give him an "A" for good intentions and an "F" for brains and thank God they weren't taxiing. The number two engine would have eaten that slide very nicely and maybe the second officer as well. At least it wasn't into the loading bridge.

Early on we didn't even have slides. Ropes were good enough. Then came non-inflatable slides. The first out had to make their way down the limp fabric and grab the bottom and hold it out for the rest to slide down. It may have been a bit much to expect from passengers decamping from a possibly burning airliner. The inflatable slides came next and then mutated into slide-rafts for overwater airliners. The life rafts that used to be carried in the cabin (and still are in high-density seating) mostly went away--a good thing for they were heavy, bulky, and hard to launch in the conditions of a sinking airplane.

The Constellations had their life rafts stowed in tub-like compartments recessed into the wing. The Super Constellations had four tubs aft of the rear spars. The life rafts were packed into them and hinged cover doors fitted over them. The doors were tight fitting and had seals to keep out the oil and rain. In the event of a ditching, it was intended that the passengers would egress through the over-wing exit hatches. Inside the frame of those exits were recessed raft release handles. The drill was simple. After the plane stopped and floated, the person in the seat would open the overwing emergency hatch. He or she would then pull the handle in the frame. A cable was attached running out to the life raft compartments. The doors would pop open and out would come the raft ready to go. It was a neat system, kept most of the rafts out of the cabin but sometimes could be difficult to adjust, particularly as there were several different types of valve heads for the CO2 bottles.

Two things had to happen to "blow" a wing raft. When you pulled the handle, the first part of the cable motion tripped the cover door lock. Continued motion pulled the split cable even further and "blew" the CO2 bottle that inflated the raft. In the chill of one Idlewild night, the mechanics who changed the wing rafts on a Connie were chagrinned to find a different type of valve head on the new rafts. The had some difficulty in getting the cables stretched far enough to hook to the valve. The door latch section of cable was fine but they had to fudge a little and the cable to the valves was somewhat taut. Rigging instructions for the life raft system were vague and even the inspector was satisfied so down went the door. It was latched, "breakaway" safety wire applied and everyone was happy.

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