Airport Times

Ruminations from the Ramp

Airport Times

By Tony Vasko

February 2001

It probably comes as no surprise to the folks in Buffalo that driving on a snow covered ramp can lead to some interesting experiences. There was the night where I was driving our GMC Carryall across the ramp at Idlewild. My supervisor and some other mechanics were with me. Although it was about 2:00 a.m., it was brilliant out and the ramp lighting made it easy to see everything in crisp detail. The snow had stopped and there were no airplanes moving as the tarmac was covered with 18-inches of virgin snow. It made me want to get out my Nordic skis and go trekking. In spite of the snow depth, the Carryall was getting along pretty well as long as I kept it moving. The big wheels on it were fitted with chains, which certainly helped. Nevertheless it was not a good idea to slow down and I was traveling at about 35mph.

The major problem was where to make the turnoff from the ramp onto the access road. It was one big white desert, and we had a little debate as to where it was. We guessed wrong however and instead found the railroad ties that lined the edge of the tarmac in that area. They were spiked down and were not going to move. There were some very expensive noises from the front end as the wheels folded underneath like hands in prayer. My supervisor did not appreciate it at all, but I offered silent prayer of my own that he was not only with me but had suggested the spot where he thought the access road lead out. It took some time to live that one down.

Taxiing in the same type of conditions can also lead to some mistakes in location. As a maintenance instructor I was sent to Cleveland in early 1967. I was to run a servicing course on the Lockheed Electra, which at that time was in its declining days at Eastern. It normally only served on the Shuttle but with the oncoming Expo '67 at Montreal (how else do you think I could remember the date?) they put some into the schedule. Since Cleveland hadn't seen an Electra in a good while it was felt that they should at least know where to put the various juices into the engines and aircraft.

I actually arrived in Cleveland late on a Sunday night on, what else, but the Electra. It was naturally snowing. It was always snowing in Cleveland when I visited. It had snowed for days before I arrived, and it snowed for several more after I got there. I staggered off to the hotel still vibrating from the beat of the propellers. About 2:00 a.m. I was awakened by an urgent call. The maintenance manager had gone off on a week's vacation and there was no maintenance management in Cleveland. As an instructor I didn't know I qualified for that lofty term since it was never acknowledged at any other time, but such it was. Get your rear out to the airport and take charge.

Cleveland had a large hangar capable of easily housing DC-8 aircraft. With the snow, it was felt best to hangar the Electra to keep the need for deicing down. Although I had not run my training course there yet, there was a recent mechanic transferee who was current on taxiing the airplane. He set off with another to find the hangar in the swirling snow. The Eastern hangar seemed to be in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It had its own taxiway that came off at right angles to another. With all the snowfall, the airport plows had not cleaned off the taxiway lights in that area so it became a matter of estimating where the Eastern taxiway lay in the midst of a white plain.

They missed by about 100 feet. They made the left turn onto the presumed taxiway and headed in toward the place where the ramp surely had to be. The Electra was empty and rode over the grass and dirt for more than its own length before it broke through the snow and earthen crust and bogged down - right up to the axles.

Reporting to "take charge" as instructed I put on my parka and boots. I was prepared for the weather at least. It was not easy to talk the motel driver into taking me to the airport. Although I was a member of "management", instructors usually didn't rate a car. I was picked up at the terminal and rode out to the site under airport escort. There were only about a dozen mechanics in Cleveland at that time and at least six were there.

To start with, it was obvious the aircraft had to be dragged out. No powering out in real life like a certain movie showed. It was going to take a lot of cable and something better than a T300 with chains. To start with, we had to trench the wheels which meant digging down and making a ramp for them. There were some cargo pallets available so I had something to pull the aircraft up onto. You can't drag it through the dirt. The mechanics were not enthusiastic about the digging. I was not enthusiastic about inheriting the problem.

Fortunately, one of the guys was in the Air National Guard who had a station on the airport. Wonder of wonders there were people there. Did they have any heavy cable? Miles of it! Did they have shackles? Bins full! Was that a Cletrac I saw? It sure was! (Cletracs are tractors with treads that go in snow). Best of all they wanted a chance to practice an aircraft recovery. Well maybe using "they" was stretching the point. The Major was in favor of it. Always one to cooperate with our armed forces, I volunteered our airplane. I signed away my life and Eastern career (if things went wrong) by giving them a hold-harmless agreement.

What started as a nightmare became, well, not easy, but certainly a lot easier. We dug out the trenches needed and put pallet boards down. We made a trail back to the main taxiway. We even found the Eastern taxiway by probing for it. We shackled the cables to the tow points on the main gear and stretched out a lot of very cranky steel cable. Only those who have worked with heavy steel cable know what I mean. Loose strands cut through gloves like hypodermic needles. It kinks and twists given the slightest chance. You don't want to stand near it when it is under strain.

The Cletrac made it look easy. It walked that airplane right out of the trenches up onto the surface pallets and with some cable adjustments got it onto the taxiway. The T300 could handle it from there and it was off to the hangar. Up on jacks, clean the wheels and brakes, inspect the props and it made its morning flight. Nothing like luck to make you look good. Or at least somewhat good. I had to report on it on the 10:00 a.m. maintenance briefing, a company-wide phone hookup.

Obviously, I held no classes on Monday. Tuesday would have been a good day to start except during the night they towed a B-720 into a hangar door. The only "management" in town had to go and look at it. With only a few mechanics on duty they had enlisted a rampie to "watch the left wingtip as we tow the big Boeing in." He did exactly that and watched it run into the door and crumple. He was a very good watcher, but poor at communicating.

I had to communicate it the next morning on the 10:00 a.m. briefing. Somehow, by a process of transference, I was assuming the blame for their mishaps. Messengers do get shot. May I also say we capped a wonderful week in Cleveland by dragging a CV-440 into a pillar in the hangar? The 28-volt self-propelled power cart also doubled as a light duty tug. The somewhat worn linkage fell past center and the engine surged into what normally would be the "generate" mode. It wouldn't come out of gear either. The unit's brakes wouldn't hold it and the man in the cockpit didn't wake up to hit the brakes. It is not often that you can see the Captain's rudder pedals from the outside of the aircraft.

To say the central region area director was not amused is an understatement. He arrived on the maintenance department’s Constellation freighter. He bounced down the ladder and made the hangar door in two jumps. Fortunately, the manager had returned so the wrath of (near) God was turned on him.

I had to stay an extra week in Cleveland to finally accomplish the training on the Electra. It snowed the whole time.