Shift Work and Odd Professions

Ruminations from the Ramp

Shift Work and Odd Professions

By Tony Vasko

December 2000

Before I start all that, there has been some interest in old and aged ground equipment. I started it off with some ruminations about CT-120 tractors (the ultimate sports car) a while back. I mentioned an even older small tractor that the bandits (sorry, I mean Maintenance Engineers) in Bermuda were keeping out of sight of the auditors. They had been ordered to scrap it, but being intelligent people had overlooked the command as they were not going to drag out equipment by hand. It had been purchased from Pan American and allegedly had been used in the days of the flying boats. I wonder if anyone knows if it still exists.

Bermuda was also the home of some peculiar (to my eyes) British equipment. They had a species of baggage tractor that had a Diesel engine. The engine was in a vertical tower arrangement and drove wheels at the bottom. You swiveled the entire engine to steer the unit. They were noisy and smoked and were ancient in the 1970s, but they worked. The import duties mandated keeping things going.

It would be interesting to hear from readers about old and ancient GSE. Mobile stuff but not necessarily self-propelled, please, and still in some kind of regular use as well. I have heard of one CT-120 still equipped with its Chrysler flat head vintage 1951. No prizes, just pride in working an oldie.

Call it what you will, Midnight Shift, Night Shift, and in some companies the eerie sounding handle of Graveyard Shift, its still a fact of life in our business. It is the home shift of those who have low seniority in the main, but not surprising there is a core of devotees who love it. Some of these folks hang by their toes from the ceiling in daylight hours as the coming of the sun seems to wither them. Just joking people, I did my time there too, and it took me five years to get off the Graveyard Shift. I made it all the way to Swing Shift with Tuesday and Wednesday off. The real reason I took a Manager's job was to get on day shift. That turned out to be a joke too, of course. You now were expected to work "flexible" hours and to be there if needed. Which was every time something went wrong. No complaints though, it’s part of our business.

The proportion of personnel assigned to Graveyard Shift is dependent on the type of operation. In a pure overhaul shop environment, midnights are usually lightly manned. Studies show that those who work on graveyard are often not at their most productive. The medical types and psychologists talk about circadian rhythms and all the like with a great deal of truth, but the bottom line is you just feel plain tired a lot of the time. There is a certain amount of unnaturalness in going to bed when the rest of the world is up and about. And no less so in you being up and about when the rest are sleeping.

I finally realized I had been on midnights too long when I worked overtime one bright and sunny morning. I was doing a walkaround check of the exterior of an Avianca L-1049E. A day shifter pointed out that I was pointing a flashlight at everything I wanted to see.

"You don't have to do that on Day Shift," he sniffed with the superior air of a senior person. "The sun is up!"

It was all lit up and there were lots of bosses around. It had to be day shift. I pocketed my flashlight and consoled myself with the thoughts of my time-and-a-half overtime rate.

Rotating shifts I found to be the worst of all. Your body no sooner got used to the idea of going to bed at night when you didn't do that any more. You were now at work. Tell that to your body. I know how it affected me once. I did a 180-degree spin-out in my 1970 Olds on Route 43 in New Jersey as a result of having to put in some midnight shift time. I was on my way home and suddenly I found myself facing the wrong way in traffic and going backwards to boot. I stopped and looked out at all the cars facing me who had stopped (fortunately). I did a U-turn in that eight-lane highway and proceeded to the next exit where I found a diner. I still shake over that one.

An overhaul shop doing "D" type checks has the "luxury" of having the airplane for a longer period of time and can put heavy manning on the first and second shifts to compensate for a light graveyard shift and even in some cases they do not even work weekends. It is no wonder that you find the graybeards in overhaul shops. Working in one of the airline’s accessory shops had the added virtue of being inside a comfortable with air-conditioning in the summer. At least some shops. I used to pass the toiling workers in the Miami wheel and brake shop pouring sweat as they humped large pieces of metal and rubber and laid into large breaker bars disassembling the filthy wheels. They were paying their dues for being on days.

Line maintenance types have no such luxury. The aircraft fly during the day maintained by people who have the seniority to hold day shift or afternoons. When I was manager for Eastern at Newark, it took 21 years plus to hold swing shift and nearly 30 to get on days. We used to joke that swing shift met the aircraft walking slightly stooped but day shift needed canes and walkers. Well, not really but the guys on days could all talk of long departed Martins and L-749 Connies with the voice of experience. The largest contingent of troops were on midnights of course. That’s when the aircraft and the ground equipment mostly beds down and you have a few hours to work on it.

The GSE troops too have their night work cut out for them. The loaders, the pushback tractors, the carts, are all mostly idle. PM checks and all the rest are scheduled and God help you if they are not ready for the AM push. "Morning Originators" are the Holy Grail at line stations. If you start out on time you have a fighting chance to stay on time the rest of the day. With today's tight scheduling there is no recovery for delayed flights.

There can be other problems with working nights. One is getting sleep. One morning the dawn started breaking in driving scud and clouds that promised a day of rain. The fellow working with me looked up and broke into a happy smile.

"It's going to rain," he said in a joyous voice.

"Your garden dried out," I asked.

"No. I live next to a schoolyard and they won't be able to have recess outside!"

It takes so little to make some people happy.

He was a strange person anyway. He had worked for years as a tank sealer. This was in the days of planes that really leaked and not your tepid Jet A either. These leaked 115-145 grade gasoline. You could see the fumes pouring from the vents when they fueled. OSHA was not even thought of and the tank entry requirements were a little slacker than now. It was not unusual to see a tank sealer sitting with a happy grin enjoying his "high" off the fumes. He paid for it later with the mother of all headaches.

Claustrophobics need not apply for tank sealing. I was lucky. Although lean in my salad days I was tall and didn't fit well into wings. I could get in some of the inboard tank areas where the wing was thick but I never liked it. Scraping sealant and chasing leaks is no fun at all. Neither is applying the goop to seal the leaks.

One interesting method of finding leaks is to first drain the tank, seal the vents and apply air pressure to the tank and brush soapy bubble solution to the suspected areas. One must be very careful however. There are lots of square feet of wing area and tanks can only stand a very small amount of pressure. The total force applied to a wing skin can be enormous. Needless to say you use calibrated regulators to blow the air into the tank.

One cold night at Idlewild they were doing just that .The plane was in the hangar but the doors were open as other aircraft were being moved in and out. The temperature was in the single digits as they started to slowly raise the pressure in an outer wing tank (tank 3A on a Super Constellation). The vents to the tank were plugged. The tank sealing crew was using compressed air from the hangar system. The gauges on the regulator faithfully recorded the pressure in inches of water but who needed to watch them. The regulator would take care of that and besides the relief valve built into it would protect them as well.

The pressure built up. Unfortunately the plant air had moisture in it. The regulator froze and didn't regulate. Th relief valve didn't relieve either. The sound of the rear spar blowing out of that Connie wing was loud and expensive. Fortunately for Lockheed Air Service they were still making Super Connies and so they were able to get another outer wing panel. After that they used water manometers that would blow the water right out if they were overpressurized.

The outer wing panel from the L1049 with the spar blown out joined another outer wing panel from an L749 Connie with the rear spar sucked in. The tank sealers had done their leak check on that aircraft but there was fuel still in the tank. With the vents still plugged they transferred fuel out of the tank. No air could get in and the pressure inside went below ambient. It finally went low enough to suck in the rear spar.

Tank sealing is one of the odd professions. I did just enough to know it wasn't for me.