Fun with Passengers

June 1, 2002
Ruminations from the Ramp

Fun with Passengers

This month, Tony Vasko recalls how bygone technology offered opportunities for "rampies" to play a variety of pranks on airline passengers.

By Tony Vasko

June/July 2002

Horror of horrors. Mechanics interacting with the passengers? This is probably one reason they invented loading bridges — a sterile tube through which the passengers could pass without having to look at the mechanics and loaders and to prevent the loaders and mechanics from staring at the passengers. Before loading bridges, there was plenty of opportunity for each to see one another. If it wasn't pouring rain, smaller airports would herd the passengers into an outside corral and then release them in a group to stay within the painted lines and find the right airplane. If it was a nice day and you just finished fueling the aircraft or the like, they would sometimes ask you a question or two as they passed by. Pulling their leg was always a good way to pass the time and a couple of things we did come to mind.

The L-749 Constellations were capable airplanes. They had the ability to lift more weight than could be actually loaded inside, at least in the passenger configuration. It was this extra capacity that led Lockheed to stretch the aircraft into the Super Constellation. But, well before that, they found a way to utilize the excess lift on the L-749 with the "Speedpack" — a detachable pod that nestled under the belly of the Connie. It had an elaborate hoisting system was built into it as well as some very substantial locks to hold it in place.

The streamlined Speedpack was usually loaded with freight in the baggage room. A cover was zipped closed across its open top and it was towed out on its own built-in wheels to the aircraft using a special towbar. There was not much clearance under it and one had to be careful in handling it.

The first step was to position it under the belly of the aircraft. Internally, the Speedpack had a winch and four cables, each fitted with hooks. The cables were stretched up to cavities built into the aircraft and equipped with a steel bar across them. You attached the four hooks to their respective bar. One would then lift a heavy electrical lead from the Speedpack and attach it to a receptacle in the belly of the Connie. It brought electric power down for heating and also for the winch motor. It seemed most often that the winch motor was lagging, so I spent a good share of my time using the hand crank that Lockheed thoughtfully provided to raise it, manually. You were lifting a couple of tons and it was a slow, laborious job. Once the Speedpack was nested home, the big latch arms were pushed in, the hooks grabbed the lugs, and the pod was pulled up tight to the belly so the seal around its top was compressed. These latch arms were dangerous. They wanted to fly out and were of a size to do serious damage to a face. You sometimes had to fight it a bit trying to find the right sequence of which latch was to be closed first.

In the 1950's, they still loaded passengers in the time-honored manner of marching them out across the ramp and then up the mobile stairs. On the way out, at least in good weather, the passengers had the opportunity to marvel at the giant of the skies they were going to fly in and also to grab a mechanic occasionally (although we were usually too quick), and ask, "What is that big thing you are putting under the airplane?"

With a straight face, we would inform them that it was the lifeboat! (There was, at least, a passing resemblance) A few more words would assure them how lucky they were to be riding on an airline that cared so much about its passengers that it carried a lifeboat. A quick glance around the ramp would confirm that nobody else cared enough to carry one, for Speedpacks were rare enough to be a novelty even on the airlines that flew L-749 Connies. One had to be quick to avoid the next question of how it was to be launched and how were the passengers to get in? A few passengers would turn and climb the steps scratching their heads. Even funnier were the "experts," always male, who had overheard the explanation and would loudly inform their wives what that thing under the plane was.

Other times, the passengers only saw us through the cabin windows. If you were working on an engine you could see their noses pressed up against the inner pane and their brows knitted with concern. Who could blame them? One tried to appear competent and knowledgeable at least to reassure them.

It was the Bristol Britannia that gave us an opportunity for some harmless fun. The Brit was equipped with four, turboprop engines of the Proteus type. These were of the free turbine type, which meant that the props and turbines that drove them weren't directly connected to the any of the drives inside the engine. In a stiff breeze up the back, with the prop brake released, the prop would windmill backwards. This turned the turbine inside the engine the wrong way. The Proteus engine was a very early turboprop and definitely didn't like air being pumped through it the wrong way while the electric starter was grinding its heart out trying to make everything turn the other way. It was therefore standard practice for the ground mechanic to go out and hold the prop on the engine being started. It really wasn't dangerous although it could be made to look spectacular!

One held the prop blade and you knew when the brake released because you could then turn it easily. You would hear the starter winding up on the engine but there was no reaction from the prop. The fuel and ignition went on and the engine would light with a little cough. The prop would pull out of your hand and you simply walked away to the next engine to be started.

For a little drama, we would lay hold of the prop on the engine to be started. We would hold it until we heard the cough and then raise a leg and fling the prop into motion as if it were 1918 and we were hand starting Captain Eddie Rickenbacker's SPAD XIII! If you were big enough, and I was, you really made it appear that you were starting that big engine all by yourself.

For some reason, the customer service types didn't like our little foolery. Maybe because it made some of the passengers wonder what kind of an airline they had bought a ticket on where the mechanics had to hand-prop the engines to get them going. I don't recommend this practice with any of the fan engines we have nowadays as I am afraid you would be gone into the belly of the beast before you knew it.

Still, it was a different ramp atmosphere back then. Pulling those same pranks on the flying public today would most likely end up with those rampies losing their jobs — and that's no laughing matter.