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...

With the morning came the sun. The cold metal of the Connie's wing soaked up the heat. Aluminum is quite expansive when heated, considerably more so than the stainless steel that made up the wing life raft cables. Experienced mechanics know you cannot properly rig an airplane unless the temperature is pretty well stabilized. Under the beat of the sun, the wing stretched and what little slack that was in the bottle cable was used up and the CO2 bottle valve was actuated. Unfortunately, there was plenty of slack in the door latch portion and it didn't release. The raft inflated, muscled the door upward, broke it and triumphantly expanded out only to deflate due to the rips it suffered in its victory over the door. A little while later, as mechanics were pushing stands up to find out what was going on, the second raft blew as well. It was probably just as well that it blew then rather waiting for the wing to flex in flight. I know of at least one military Connie model that had some problems with control due to a raft wrapped around an outboard fin.

Life rafts in the cabin were not trouble free either. Necessary as they are, they are often afterthoughts in the design of an aircraft. These are often stowed in the overhead ceiling panels, which require the installation of counterweight systems to prevent the raft from crushing the innocent flight attendant underneath. Some are stowed in coatrooms and closets and must be lugged by brute force to the nearest door.

One of a mechanic's easier tasks is a check of the emergency equipment. It is a tedious and lengthy job but it is inside the cabin making it a preferred assignment on cold, wintry nights. The Super Connie parked outside the hangar was jumping in its chocks under blasts of near Arctic air. Those of us who drew engine oil sumps and screens pulled long faces for it is no fun on a windy night. I was included in that unhappy quartet and would have to open firewalls and main cowling on all four engines and remove the main and scavenge oil screens and the magnetic chip detector plugs. The oil would be thick in the cold, dirty as always and would blow everywhere, as it was very windy. The smarter put raingear on, as much for a personal windbreaker as to keep our coveralls clean.

Miserable as we may have been, one person was happy. Mort had paid his dues yesterday in working a particularly dirty lavatory problem so in the name of equity, the lead mechanic gave him the cabin as his assignment. He disappeared upstairs determined to "milk" the job for the entire shift as we unfortunates moved stands and opened the "tin" on the engines. Mort started on a careful inventory of the life vests that were secured under the seats. Each vest was checked for having its pouch sealed and not having being past its expiration date. The Connie, snakelike and elegant, narrows considerably at the aft end. The two aft lavatories were separated by a partition and directly forward of them were two coatroom closets. A bulky raft was stored in the left-hand closet and Mort had to check it.

It was cold in the cabin and so Mort was well bundled. This may explain his clumsiness or maybe it was that he was working in the dark with only his flashlight to illuminate things. At any rate, he tugged at the raft to turn it for examination. He was horrified to hear the sound of the CO2 bottle inside the large yellow bag discharging. Wrong handle. He was even more dismayed as the big yellow raft burst the bag open. He found he was trapped by the writhing shape of the raft that was made to get big and round but was constrained by the coat closets, ceiling, floor, and Mort. The flashlight was lost in the folds of the raft and Mort found he was being pressed very firmly against a partition. The raft was doing its best to squash him when his hand found his tool pouch and he calmly (hah!) selected a common screwdriver and stabbed that raft to Swiss cheese. There were no dramatic pops for rafts are built not to explode like a balloon. It was not a fast deflation either for the raft had two separate compartments. It sounds funny now, but Mort was a very shaken mechanic when he came downstairs. His back was strained. The ceiling panel was pushed up and a closet door was broken too as testimonial to the power of expanding gas.

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