Tuesday, June 05, 2007


The most common aircraft collision is with an object on the ground, going at very slow taxi speeds. I can’t tell you how many accident reports I read that involve an aircraft and a fuel truck, or baggage cart, or catering truck, or lavatory service truck, or deicing truck, or building, or anything else that moves or can’t move around an airport. Rarely does this occur when pilots are taxiing their aircraft. These accidents most often involve a person driving a vehicle into an airplane. Pilots’ taxiing the last 100 feet into a gate is where many of these incidents occur. We rely on the hand signals from our ground personnel marshalling us into our parking spot. The marshaller uses standard hand signals, procedure, and experience to guide us in. From the cockpits we cannot see our wings and therefore what our wings may hit. We watch closely to make sure all vehicles are outside of a painted clear zone and our wing walkers have their thumbs up to indicate wings clear. I have seen wing walkers staring at their shoes with their thumbs up not paying attention at all to my aircraft. Although we have a very good feel for what is happening outside we still need the other eyes of safety on the ground. When you taxi into a gate area there is a considerable amount of activity going on. Baggage carts are zipping along every which way to get passenger bags to an aircraft as soon as possible. FlyGuy makes a point of bumming a ride from these drivers a couple of times a year. I just go down the jetway stairs and walk out to the traffic lanes being careful to not get run over. I wait for a tug to drive by and stick out my thumb as though I am trying to hitch hike. I have had100% luck having a tug driver stop, the first one, always. Hitch hiking pilots are not a common occurrence and curiosity is a great human condition. “I need a ride over to the employee cafeteria.” I said one crisp winter afternoon at JFK. My jet was a concourse over from the cafeteria and the walk is not a short one. The copilot that day decided to race me to the cafeteria on foot. We stepped into the Jetway, counted to three and he bolted up towards the Jetway exit. I ran down the stairs onto the ramp and jogged out to the driving lanes behind my jet, noticing immediately that it was bitterly cold. There wasn’t a vehicle in sight. I looked over to the jet parked next to me and saw a beehive of activity. I started to run over to it when a tug came careening out from under the terminal. I didn’t know where this driver was going but it looked like it was to a fire. “Please turn in my direction, please”, I thought. He turned toward me accelerating. I turned my body towards him and stuck my thumb out. After a momentary look of confusion, the driver slammed on the brakes and came to a jarring stop just past me. He was looking over his shoulder to me, smiling. He was my man! I ran over, told him that I was in a race trying to beat the copilot to the employee cafeteria. “Jump in captain”, he said. I was not quite in my seat when he mashed the accelerator to the floor. In seconds cold, cold wind was going through my jacket, shirt, and first layer of skin. My eyes were watering like I had just found out my daughter was out of college and employed. Through my tears I saw other tugs go by in a blur in the opposite direction, mere inches from us. The driver veered around a jet that was being pushed back, never taking his foot off the pedal. Then I saw a 757 taxiing by and heard one engine being shutdown. I had never heard that before. To save gas we always try to shut an engine down after landing after the engine has cooled down. It was weird hearing something I always do but can’t hear if from the flight deck. The driver bobbed and weaved around numerous obstacles, then came to a stop as a heavy jet was taxiing out. Loud is the only word I can use here and I had my earplugs in. He plowed through deep puddles of icy slush, rounded the corner of the next terminal and came to a stop in front of the door I needed. He told me he would wait and as I ran into the building and the cafeteria, the driver yelled something to me. I ran back to hear what he had said. “The calzones, the calzones are good!” he said, giving me the thumbs up sign. I ran in and discovered I had beaten the copilot.

It was a meatball calzone that I got and man was it good. The copilot came in about 4 minutes after me, realized he was beaten and said bad words. I convinced him to drive back with us. The driver drove just as fast back to our jet. At one point I looked at the copilot and he just shook his head with a “what the heck have you gotten me into” look. If you look hard enough around airports you can see where buildings, doors, guard rails, and many, many other things have been hit by a vehicle. Vehicles hit vehicles all the time. These collisions occasionally result in deadly consequences. FlyGuy was a boy scout in his early days and had a scoutmaster who worked for an airline on the ramp. About ten years ago during a pushback at night, he took a simple misstep and got run over by the nose wheel. He lost his leg below the knee and was lucky to be alive. A horrific accident happened years ago at night on the ramp of a major airport. A tug driver was cutting across the ramp when he noticed another tug coming head on to him driving erratically. He veered to avoid a collision and as he passed the tug he realized the driver was missing his head. The poor man had driven by an airplane that had its propellers still spinning. Last year at Boston’s Logan airport a ground worker was killed after getting hit by a snowplow clearing taxiways. While flying big cargo jets in the military there seemed to always be a report about some poor sap that taxied into something they should not have. We would fly all over the world and land at airports or military bases we were not familiar with. Taxi with extreme caution was the rule. I cannot tell you the number of times some person on the ground in a remote spot of the world, who had no knowledge of my airplane, tried to get me to taxi into a spot where I would have gotten stuck or I would have hit something. We would send our flight engineers out of the jet and have them on 200 foot extension cords to a headset. This allowed us to have some eyes on the ground that knew what they were doing. During the Gulf War of 1991 we were given a mission that was time critical to say the least. We were at an airbase in Germany with a raging blizzard in progress. Once we left the parking area with its stadium type of lights, we could not see the taxiway signs to determine where we were. The airbase was shutdown to all traffic but our mission priority was such that we needed to get out of there. We could only see a small part of the taxiway directly under the nose. Two engineers went out, one on a headset and the other to help find the taxiway signs. We could not have gotten out to the runway without their help. This was a great example of what working as a crew can do. It was a very eerie night and we never saw the people outside, just heard their voices and the extension cord going out into a white curtain. The controllers knew where we were only because we could tell them. Modern airports now have ground radar and can see you in any weather. We eventually got out to the runway, got the engineers on board and talked about how to take off. We could only see the tip of a centerline stripe on the ground only if you leaned forward and put your head over the instrument panel. We decided that the pilot taking off (not me that night) would look outside only and try to stay centered on the runway and I would stay inside and look only at the instruments, giving the flying pilot verbal information such as speed, altitude, engine settings, etc. We ran the engines up to full power and released the brakes. Acceleration was slow as we were heavy as hell. I started calling out the numbers and glanced over to the other pilot. I took one look at this face and never looked at him again. We slowly increased our speed, rotated the nose and the pilot lost contact with the ground instantly. We were still accelerating with the main gear on the ground looking at a white wall. The pilot transitioned to instruments, held his pitch and we felt the main gear leave the ground. I crosschecked our altitude and vertical velocity seeing they were both increasing and raised the gear. The tower controller asked us if we were airborne, we acknowledged and continued on with the mission. A few hours later we delivered our cargo to some very thankful people. The most expensive thing to hit is an airplane and it is also expensive for an airplane to taxi into an object. When I was parked at JFK a few weeks ago I pulled up to a gate and noticed a big indentation on the exterior of the terminal in front of me. I think it is where a 747 did not stop in time and creased the thin metal plating of the wall. I took a picture of the impact site and posted it above. What do you think? Be Safe, FlyGuy.