Imagine 2 a.m. on a brisk autumn morning at Logan. The leaves have fallen off the trees and I’m working the midnight shift at Allegheny Airlines. Back in the late 1960’s, the aircraft were Convair 580s and I was doing overnight service checks. We had a crew of twelve, and more aircraft than gates. These were the heady days of aviation expansion; Allegheny was adding aircraft almost faster than mechanics to service them. Gate space was at a premium, boxed in as we were between American and National Airlines. This was in the days before the new terminals increased gate space and the fuel crunch reduced flights, leaving hundreds of aircraft parked in the desert.
Because of the constrained space, mechanics had to be taxi qualified as soon as possible. Every night aircraft were jockeyed around the airport so that the overnight crews could get to them. All the young guys wanted to taxi aircraft. The bigger the better. Pilot envy? Maybe. But it was also just plain fun. The thrill of moving a sleek metal machine. A congested terminal area seemed more akin to an obstacle course, heightening the risk. And the thrill.
I never wondered why, until that night, none of the senior guys were as eager to taxi aircraft. But I get ahead of myself. That night, I was assigned an aircraft right by one of the two Allegheny gates. No aircraft jockeying for me that night. Not long into my shift, a supervisor came hustling out to round up a few of us to scout out a problem just radioed in by a mechanic taxiing an aircraft out to remote parking. He needed help but he didn’t say what kind of help. Keep in mind - this was not only pre-cell phone days; heck it was pre-walkie talkie days! Well not exactly, pre-walkie talkie; they existed, but it wasn’t common for maintenance personnel to have them.
We got in the truck and drove the mile out to the former National Guard area not knowing what we would find. The area was pitch dark; the parking area a horseshoe shape that dead ended. We had to maneuver around two large aircraft to get close enough to see the problem. And then, there it was. In the bright beam of our headlights: the errant airplane’s left wing nestled among the bare branches of a large, deciduous tree. Could have been a maple. Could have been an oak. For sure it was the only one on the airport. And this poor fellow had managed to get his aircraft entangled in it.
The damage was minor. So far. A broken position light lens. But the aircraft couldn’t go forward – a large branch had stopped its forward progress. And it couldn’t go backwards without damaging the wing. Our first goal was to free the aircraft without doing any more damage. (This ended up involving the creative use of chains and an aircraft tow tractor.) The second goal, of course, was to cover up the incident so that no one would ever know it happened. We were somewhat less successful on this front. Word spread pretty quickly on the ramp. And I don’t think the poor guy’s ever been able to live this down. But I learned from his incident. And I was never so quick to volunteer to taxi aircraft again, especially in tight locations, without adequate assistance.
Moral of the Story: You can learn from the mistakes of others. It’s ok to ask for help; especially for wing walkers and marshallers when you’re on a crowded ramp area. And if a senior mechanic doesn’t want to do it, find out why. There’s got to be a good reason.
P.S. As the Wrench Turns welcomes reader participation. Thank you, FlightSafe, for your maglite story. Glad for the happy ending. And Nelson, please encourage your fellow mechanics to send in their Skydrol stories.