Ruminations from the Ramp

Ruminations from the Ramp

Ruminations from the Ramp

By Tony Vasko

February 2000

If you are reading this, you have survived into the new Millennium (or still have to wait one more year if you are a purist). We ended a century that started with people awed by steam locomotives and an occasional balloon at the county fair. By the time it was two-thirds over we were walking on the moon. Even by science-fiction standards, that is some change.

In our own business there have been many changes exclusive of the aircraft side. I can remember being in Operations watching weather maps being slowly etched into paper wrapped around a revolving drum. The image was literally burned into the sensitized paper by an electrostatic spark copier. I can still smell the ozone from the spark. The data on the map had been laboriously accumulated by observers scattered across the country reading instruments and flying balloons. Now, during the preflight briefing our Captains are handed a satellite picture taken minutes before and in full living color besides. There’s the hurricane, there’s the jet stream. Want another view? One second, Captain, while I call it up!

Who too (if they are old enough) can forget the clattering teletypes that clicked and clacked in a cacophony of nervous energy? The machines were never really silent for they clucked in sympathy with messages not routed to them. Then they really took off when it was theirs. For the more urgent messages the machine was equipped with metallic sounding bells that binked away to tell the agent to come and tear off a yard of hot message.

I was hanging out in Eastern’s LaGuardia Operations one day in between teaching some DC-9 maintenance classes when one of the machines went into a spasm of binking bells. Obviously the message was of great importance so even the blasé agent came over to see what it was. The machine finally began to chatter away and soon we read it was an urgent catering message addressed to "All Stations." With more clashing and flashing of keys it proudly stated that the two and a quarter inch cracker did not have to be precisely two and a quarter inches in diameter but could deviate from that standard by up to three-sixteenths of an inch. I was much relieved for I pictured teams of caterers wielding calipers next to piles of rejected crackers wiping their brows in relief.

Some things stay the same. I was reassured of this by a friend calling from another airline that operates aircraft for sports teams. Among other things he mentioned that one of their B-737-400 was out of service. It was up at a Canadian station and had been marshaled in by a rampie who was familiar (I suppose) with the shorter B-737-200. Said rampie carefully guided the aircraft onto the painted lines and around in an arc so it would end precisely on the designated parking spot. The tail too described an arc and managed to catch a light pole. The left stabilizer tip got a good crunch that put the aircraft down for a few days. (–400s are really a lot longer than –200s)

Like the B-737-400 being longer than the B-737-200, I proved that the "stretch 8" (a DC-8-61) was longer than a "regular 8." Unlike the rampie, I was marshalling the "stretch 8" out of a congested hangar ramp to depart for a pilot trainer. I carefully turned the long aircraft to avoid the outstretched wingtips of another "8." I did fail to notice that they had parked my aircraft way back so its tail stuck over the blast fence into the United Airlines hangar ramp. Therein resided a light pole for the UAL side. In making that turn, I hooked the right horizontal stabilizer tip into the pole. Oh my. That was my one and only but it was enough to last a lifetime.

Here in Greensboro, they are predicting snow and freezing rain tonight. This creates a minor panic in this city, and the city will ready its four snowplows. At the mention of snow or ice I can immediately call up the sweet taste of glycol being blown into my face while deicing aircraft in a high wind. And who can forget the sheer joy of surviving fueling a Connie whose wings were covered with ice. Guiding a fuel truck back toward the aircraft in a snowstorm was always interesting. The driver had to hang out the door to see you, and there was sometimes a difference of opinion as to what your frantic signals meant. Then too his booted feet sometimes slipped off slippery clutch pedals.

Once you managed to park the truck up went the ladder to lean against the leading edge. Then too there is something about sliding out on your belly on top of the ice-covered wing dragging the stiff fuel hose out to the 2A or 3A outer wing tank or, if you were really lucky, after finishing the outboard aux tank, you continued by slithering out past the outboard main to where the wing was very narrow and very high. The big 2B/3B 600-gallon tip tank was out there. You developed an almost prehensile grip at this point and with ice and wind, the pucker factor was great. The memory sticks with you.

There was also the sheer pleasure of oiling the engines in the winter. In one way this was easier as the far smaller oil truck could be maneuvered into close proximity to the engine. If the oil truck had been outside for a while its contents resembled a frozen custard or the soft ice cream coming out of the dispenser. The oil "zerked" out of the nozzle making sounds like something regurgitating. The thickened column of oil was directed into the yawning oil tank filler fitting. This filler was fitted with a coarse screen and in very cold weather you had to almost push the congealed oil through the screen with a stick. Smart people kept their oil trucks inside the hangar to keep the contents liquid.

It was usually during very extreme cold spells with high winds or in blizzards that the most delicate repairs came up. Soldered electrical connections became brittle in the cold. The engines vibrated enormously which stressed the connections to the point of failure. Some connectors were exposed to the howling blast of the propeller as they were on the nose section of the engine. Soldering wires to the pins and sockets of an engine "Cannon" plug (the generic term for electrical connectors undoubtedly frowned on by the manufacturer) required the removal of the gloves. The soldering irons could hardly cope with the extreme cold and wind and it took an endless amount of time to get the solder to flow.

Shivering did not help to keep the hands steady and the maintenance stand you were perched on, particularly if the ramp had ice and snow on it, were quite unsteady. Doing the work by a dimming flashlight added to the scene. Why a dimming flashlight? The "D" cells of the day lost power when they got cold so you kept some in an inside pocket and rotated the warm ones out and the cold ones in. After a while the "outs" got cold and the "ins" came out again. Try and read wire numbers and connector pin numbers under those conditions particularly when your eyeglasses keep frosting up.

Even inside the aircraft where you were out of the wind, it could feel very cold. The electrical connectors inside the aircraft were less robust than the ones on the engine and there were some true horrors. These included the infamous "Jones" plugs found on the DC-6 instrument panels and the inverter selector switches on the overhead panel on the same machine. They had multiple wires feeding to a myriad of connections in very tight quarters.

Having put in eight hours of freezing plus four of overtime that was no warmer temperature wise but felt better at time-and-a-half pay, you then pushed out to the employee’s parking lot at the IAB at Kennedy Airport. The employees’ lot was the last to be plowed of course and because it never emptied entirely could never be properly cleared. What I am saying is nothing new to the people up in Minneapolis and the like. Compared to New York they have an extra four months of it. Here in North Carolina, we can’t complain at all.