Creatures I Have Met

Ruminations from the Ramp

Creatures I Have Met

By Tony Vasko

October 2000

My children are in their thirties, and they cannot remember the days when you bought a ticket, showed up at the airport, and just boarded the airplane. I mean just got on the aircraft. No sniffers, x-rays, magnometers, body searches, people taking profiles, armed guards, warnings over the PA about not accepting anything from a stranger and questions about "Who packed your bags?"

It seems incredible to them that we did that kind of thing, that we were so trusting. People carried what they could on board. Now admittedly, they could not carry on board as much as they do now for there were only the hat racks overhead. They were small, not very deep or high and were burdened on the DC-4 with electric fans. There was no room for the steamer trunks, duffle bags, wheelbarrows and the like we see as "carry-on" baggage today.

Certain markets see more regular baggage and "carry-on" than others. If you doubt me, go to Miami Terminal and watch what people are carrying to the islands and south of the border. At times, airlines have hired "baggage aircraft" to follow the regular passenger flights. It is not all one way either. Immigrants up north here long for the taste of familiar food and often visitors or the person returning from a visit bring with them some of the tasties they remember from their youth. Much of it ends in the hands of the Agriculture Department who have a duty to intercept the flying and crawlie things that ride with the food.

Trans Caribbean Airlines flew a single route from Puerto Rico’s San Juan Airport to New York’s Idlewild Airport. Competition was stiff as both Eastern and Pan American served the same run too. Trans Carib, however, had low fares and was operating two leased DC-6B aircraft fitted with the maximum number of seats allowed. Their food service was sparse being a sandwich, apple or banana, cookie and container of milk in a cake box complete with string tied around it. The apples were better than bananas as the yellow fruit had a pungent smell in a hot cabin.

We had an urgent message from the aircraft when it came in range to meet it. It didn’t sound like the usual maintenance problems so Ed G and I met it wondering what was going on. The aircraft blocked in, the engines stopped, up went the push set of steps, and the passengers seemed to burst out of the airplane looking over their shoulders as they did so. Not a good sign at all. I have seen airplanes infested with roaches (a mix of little bitty ones and big flying tropical types), mice, rats, and even monkeys. The monkeys, however, were on a cargo flight so I didn’t think that was the case here.

In the best tradition of the sea and air the crew were the last off and they told us to "Find those damn crabs and get rid of them."

Crabs? Did they mean little bitty ones also called lice? No they meant big armored specials, khaki colored and mean. Apparently one of the passengers was bringing a shopping bag load of land crabs up for a family feast in New York. He had placed the shopping bag in the hat rack. Times being what they were, no one had questioned him about what was in the bag. The crabs must have stayed quiescent for a period but then decided they wanted out of the bag. They broke out into the hat rack. The cabin was quiet for this was a night flight and fortunately not heavily loaded. They must have spread out a bit before they started spilling down on the somnolent passengers.

Land crabs are big; they have great claws and a serious attitude problem. They scuttle sideways with upraised claws, they move fast and they can climb. They also exude foam. I often wondered what would have happened if the aircraft had been chock full and the crabs started spilling out up front and everyone ran to the rear.

Ed and I went onto the aircraft and spied one immediately. He had an apple core in one claw and was moving down the aisle in our direction. A size 12 brogan put an end to his wanderlust. We looked around. They seemed to be everywhere. Some were still in the overhead as indicated by some waving claws. Others were under the seats, still others lay dead from frenzied stamping by rather upset passengers.

We called for help and decided it was a job for the cleaners. They were loud and profane in denying that. Although union members always try to extend their "job scope," there are some jobs they don’t want. Catching land crabs was such a job, so we spent the next several hours looking, probing (with sticks) and catching or dispatching the crabs. Truthfully, I’d rather have crabs than snakes.

Sub head

Wet Me Down, I'm Going In

Our very impetuous Lead Mechanic Watkins occasionally outdid himself. He was one of those characters who have enormous ability but are difficult to work for, around or with. Lockheed Air Service (LASI) where I started work in 1954 was located at the then Idlewild and occupied hangars one and two before moving to hangar seven. Outside hangar two was a shed that was used for storing flammable paint and solvents. It was not large and, aside from the paint, nothing else of value was stored within. It was purposely located away from the hangar because MEK and paint thinners are very flammable. In due course it caught fire. By the time anyone noticed, it was totally involved and in fact was a raging inferno. Cans of paint and solvent would pop off in bursts of colored flame which quenched any desire to get too close.

The mechanics on duty hurriedly stretched a fire hose from the hangar, but it was too short and the stream of water did not even come close. Since the Port Authority Fire Department had been called and was expected momentarily, no one was too excited because the shed was already a total loss. No other buildings or airplanes were near and most importantly no persons were in danger. I have seen mechanics risk their own lives to try to help others or to save planes. Cans of paint, however, are not worth any risk.

Everyone was standing in a group, some still holding the hose and watching the fun when Watkins came racing from the hangar. He held a small CO2 fire extinguisher cradled in his arms. He had run all the way and was nearly exhausted but that did not stop him. He turned to the mechanics still holding the fire hose and uttered the immortal words that clung to him for the rest of his career, "Wet me down, I’m going in!" He was deadly serious. He was going to go into the blazing shed with a little CO2 extinguisher and try to put the fire out.

Fortunately a supervisor grabbed him, and asked, "Why?"

This completely short circuited Watkins’ brain. It was one of the great unasked questions in his life. "Why?" Once a thought came into your head, you Did!! Why ask Why? The metaphysical aspects of the problem paralyzed him long enough for the fire department to arrive and save the foundation.

Watkins was also famous for demonstrating a new, and, up until that time, totally unthought of way of removing the tailcone from a Constellation. The Connies were one of the first planes to use hydraulically boosted flight controls. The rudder and elevator boost systems were inside the tailcone and to change an actuator package you had to remove that tailcone. The tailcone did have a removable access plate on its bottom for entry and one could get inside it for minor repairs but for the big jobs, like changing the rudder boost packs, the whole tailcone had to be pulled off. It is a large and bulky piece of structure at best, and it is way up off the ground. You needed to position a large work platform beneath to give yourself a place to work and room to place it once removed.

The tailcone structure is flattened on top and with a lip that catches onto airplane structure. To hold it fastened, four very heavy airlock fasteners are installed from the outside. They were much longer than the common ones used to fasten engine cowling and had a protruding clevis head that you turned with a wrench. Because they were so long they occasionally jammed.

On this occasion as on many others, the airlock fasteners would not back out so the two mechanics asked Watkins’ help. After a few scathing remarks about their ancestry and mechanical ability, Watkins climbed up the big tailstand which had been placed under the rear section. He had to stoop down to climb in through the access hole at the bottom of the tailcone but he managed. Now roosting inside the tailcone he proceeded to demonstrate how to drive the unlocked fasteners out with a hammer and drift pin.

As he drove out the last pin, the tail cone, no longer being secured to the tail, naturally fell off. As naturally also, the sole occupant of that tailcone accompanied it down. Fortunately the tail stand was waiting in place and the platform was only a couple of feet below so he didn't take the big ride. The Connie tail is very high off the ground and not the place to fall from. The cone was only slightly dented and the occupant escaped with cuts and bruises having "shown" the mechanics how to do it. They were suitably impressed and made sure they told everyone of this new technique. It lost nothing in the telling.

One didn't mention that little incident in Watkins’ presence. Doubtless his modesty forbade mentioning it.