Hemmed In

May 3, 2005
Having gotten a bit of depression off my mind in my last article on present conditions in our industry I can go back to other ruminations.

Having gotten a bit of depression off my mind in my last article on present conditions in our industry I can go back to other ruminations.

I just saw where a rampie got into a baggage compartment while adjusting some freight and a fellow worker, imbued no doubt with the spirit of making an "on-time" departure, shut the door behind him penning him in. I doubt that he enjoyed the flight very much as the accommodations in a bag pit are sparse, the in-flight service poor, even by today's standards, and sanitary facilities are totally lacking. At least the baggage is pressurized and there is a modicum of heat; only enough to keep him from totally freezing. I can imagine the surprise of the rampies at the arrival station when they opened the door. There have been surprises in the past when dogs being shipped as baggage chewed their way out of crates. Usually the ones that do this are not of the Poodle or Golden Retriever type, but tend more to be of the Doberman and Pit Bull variety. They become very territorial about their baggage compartment and take great exception to any mere human trying to get them out. I have seen the ASPCA folks at the Animal Port give some much needed help involving loose dogs in baggage. They did not however take responsibility for the inevitable clean-up that was needed and the dogs were unable to find any grassy areas in the bag pit.


Of course it is not always rampies who get stuck in baggage. I responded to a call for assistance over at LaGuardia one day. A foreman and mechanic were "trapped" in the C2 bin of an L-1011. They had gone inside to work on the baggage door which in those days featured a highly unreliable and touchy operating mechanism. The two maintenance persons had managed to get it to work ' once ' to the closed and locked position, but were inside when that happened.

The traffic was light between Kennedy Airport and LaGuardia Field so when I arrived I was just in time to prevent the Rescue Squad folks from using some very large, long pry bars to try to lever the door open. They were disappointed when I told them they wouldn't succeed due to the design of the door and even more so when I turned down their offer of using their SAWZ-ALL cutter. The name of the ferocious looking cutting tool should tell you enough about its purpose. I convinced them the two inside would starve to death long before they suffocated. A television crew that had responded to the impending demise of the "two trapped workers" was also disappointed but that night I made the evening news. Unfortunately, I was identified as an expert from Lockheed who managed to rescue them before they suffocated. Such were my fifteen seconds of fame on TV.

Dangerously Trapped!

Our friends at OSHA have taken up the cause of people who must work in confined entry spaces. It is true that workers have been injured or even died in them, so it is warranted. When you introduce fumes, low oxygen levels and just plain constriction it can get downright dangerous. Such places include fuel tanks. Aircraft fuel tanks are mostly of the integral type which means they have sealed the actual aircraft structure to contain the fuel. There are also other types where they place a rubber bladder inside the aircraft to hold the fuel and in some of the older models, there were metal tanks that fit inside wings and fuselages.

Fixing leaking tanks is partially an art. Problem one is finding the source of the leak. Anyone who has stuck his head inside a tank opening and looked around will know what I mean. There is a maze of ribs, bulkheads, structure, piping and fuel probes, pumps and wiring. You crawl, heave and pull yourself over sharp edges and projections. It hurts. People who know me now will be surprised to learn I was once thin and supple and could get inside fuel tanks. Good living has taken care of that problem. I did do a bit of sealing at Eastern for I had learned that in tank-sealing neatness counts. A thin bead of sealer in the right place does more than five pounds of slobbered on sealant. Preparation counts too. I once stopped a long-standing leak in a DC-7 outer wing by simply stretching far in and pulling off a mass of multi-colored sealant that had been vainly thrown at a far corner in an effort to stop a leak. That was one time my long arms helped since the wing section there was too thin to actually get inside. Good cleaning with MEK (still okay in those days) and a fillet of sealer stopped the leakage. The mass of sealant I pulled out in one piece had never adhered but did make a nice mold of the front spar structure in that area.

Keeping Your Wits

But getting in the tank is one thing. Getting out is another. Around 1955 or so I was offered a position on the tank sealing crew at Lockheed Air Service in New York by the then lead mechanic, Eddie Oakes. Even then he was considered a guru of sealing porous aircraft types such as the L-049 Constellation and the war weary C-54. I turned him down. I did not want a career of working inside wings. A full thirty-five years and several employers later, we met again in Dayton, OH, over the center fuel tank cell of an Emery B727. I was now VP of the airline operating the aircraft and he was running a tank sealing company out of Texas.

After he chewed up his boys who had missed what he considered an obvious leak, Eddie and I decamped and talked over beers and dinner. He had many tales of projects he had been on including sealing the B1B swing-wing bombers which apparently came from the factory leaking badly. He also talked of being called to assist people stuck in tanks. He swore that when a trapped person panicked and lost it they would swell up. Eddie would know. He had extricated a lot of people from these situations. As is usual the ability to collect your wits by taking a deep breath and stopping to think for a second helps a lot. There have been a lot of improvements in protective clothing and breathing devices not to mention ventilation equipment and analyzers for fumes and oxygen levels. But a cool head still helps a lot.

One final item...

I was on a confined entry committee set up at Eastern to study some OSHA recommendations. OSHA had considerable success with workers in sewers and large oil storage tanks. They had mandated a harness and cables and a winch or other means of pulling an unconscious worker from the pipe or tank. It seemed like a good idea to require the same thing for aircraft fuel tank entry. We had some difficulty in persuading them that if you attempted to winch someone out of an aircraft fuel tank all you would retrieve would be pieces resulting from the person being cut up by the internal structure of the tank. They reluctantly abandoned that one.