Ruminations from the Ramp

March 1, 2004

You'd better be on your guard because Tony Vasko is back.... with Security and Midnight Raids!

March 2004

Airport security has become one of the great problems of our age. There can be no argument against it as the wounds of 9/11 still fester in all of us who work at airports or for airlines. We still harbor a sullen rage against the suicidal murderers and their terrorist sponsors who have changed our lives, I suppose, forever. Only the oldsters in the business can remember the carefree days when airports at even the largest cities were relatively free and open. Airport security is a true nightmare. We cannot run a civil airport like the old SAC (Strategic Air Command) bases where "The Use of Deadly Force is Authorized" signs decorated the fences. The huge area, the numerous entrances and vehicle gates to the operating areas at any city airport all make it difficult to reach the hermetic levels of sealing the government wants. Add to this the numbers of persons who work there and need to get into the restricted areas and the problem becomes still more difficult. The bins and cabinets in any vehicle used by the Ground Equipment mechanics contains enough potential weaponry to make the efforts of the TSA people searching passenger's carry-on luggage look ridiculous. Nail clippers indeed, try my tire iron or jack handle. Still it must be done and only our vigilance on the ramp can prevent our tools from becoming someone else's weapons. I am old enough to have worked in the days when there was no security, no searching, no twenty questions, no identification required. A passenger paid for his ticket, handed it over at the gate and got on the airplane. To get onto the ramp from the terminal you opened any one of a lot of doors and simply stepped out. If you had a vehicle you drove it up to a gate. Even at a major airport like Idlewild (JFK International Airport) if the vehicle resembled anything like a ramp vehicle, the guard, if awake, usually waved you on. Very few actually demanded to see your ID card. It was considered hilarious to paste the picture of a gorilla on your ID and wave it at the guard. It always worked. Try that now. Hell, in the forties I used to go to LaGuardia and stand near the end of runway 04 and watch the DC-3's and 4's and the occasional Boeing Stratoliner landing. There was nothing but a low hedge between the runway and me. This stayed true right into the mid fifties when I went to school nearby. When I started working at Lockheed Air Service in 1954 there was a modicum of security for military aircraft were worked there in addition to the commercial operation. Only the US Presidential aircraft and the SAM fleet aircraft (Special Air Missions) warranted special security including round-the-clock guards. Later some of the radar packing Super Connies (WV-2/RC-121/EC-121) were considered very secret and merited their own guards too. One model called the "Q Ships" seemed to do a lot of flying whenever the U-2 spy plane visited Russian airspace. I know about those guards, or at least the little mobile shacks they had to protect them from the weather. When the airplane was moved, the little shack was towed over near it and the guard installed. One midnight at the terminal we were repairing a cart used to carry the equipment for changing aircraft wheels. The big casters it rolled on were broken. The lead sent two mechanics over to the hangar "to see if they could find some wheels." They returned in due course with some very fine replacements. No questions were asked, at least not right then. The next night when we came to work our supervisor, the Manager of Security and two security guards greeted us. We had to pull out our rollaway toolboxes and each was minutely checked to see what wheels they rode on. A light came on in our heads. Naturally, all the toolboxes rode on relatively small wheels. Who would put 16-inch wheels on a rollaway toolbox? After some questions to which none of us could volunteer any useful information, security left. The supervisor waited until they were definitely gone. "You SOBs," he screamed. "You took those casters off one of Security's guard shacks to put on our wheel cart. We could have all been fired if they found them. They have checked every toolbox at Hangar 7 and are on the war path."

Well maybe. He seemed very upset over it so it wasn't worth mentioning that the shack was tilted over on its side to repair some dry rot in the flooring. Also that security didn't seem smart enough to look at the obvious places where someone would use those big wheels. Or that we had prudently put the tire cart in Air France's equipment area.

I took an active part in a little midnight raid later on. At Newark Airport, a lot of construction was going on. Some very large cranes were in use during the day that lay idle at night. We had an engine change in progress but the problem was to get the engine, a very large and corpulent RB-211 off the lowboy truck. We had hired a crane at some outrageous cost per hour for midnight work but the hook was too large for the shackle on top of the lifting beam. A frantic search was fruitless, a call to the other airlines produced nothing and then I thought of the construction area. I was the Maintenance Manager for Eastern and I took the Manager of Stores with me and drove over to the construction. It was dark but sure enough, there was a beautiful shackle suspended from a crane's hook about ten feet up in the air. I thought of the hired crane consuming hundreds of dollars per hour.

It was a moment's work to park the Econoline van under the hook. I clamored up on top of the van and was laying hands on the shackle when I got more lighting than I wanted. It was coming from the spotlight on a Port Authority Police Car. I came down with the shackle in my hands. The officer was rather bemused to find someone wearing a business suit and tie apparently stealing a rusty shackle from a crane. Well, I was really only borrowing it as I explained. I gave one of the best performances of my life and suffice to say we swung the engine off the lowboy truck twenty minutes later. I even got a police escort back to the construction crane.

In this day and age however, the humor is gone. My background has been checked. It had been checked back in the fifties and sixties when I was cleared for access to SAMFLEET and Presidential Aircraft but has been rechecked so I can work at Tradewinds. Getting on an airplane as a passenger is now an ordeal. We can only hope that this too shall pass.