Beneath The Wing, Part 6: Walk The Line

MaverickSawyer

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Part 6: Walk The Line

No, not the Johnny Cash song. :p This post is about the “wingwalker” tasks during arrival and departure. And, no, that doesn’t mean I got to walk on the actual wing. (Although that would have been cool. ;) )

So, why do you need to have people at the wingtips during arrival and pushback? Simple: the pilots can’t see anything behind them. Therefor, in order to prevent the aircraft from banging into things like light poles, baggage carts, or other aircraft, two ramp agents stand along the entry to the parking area, and pace the aircraft during pushback. Due to the noise levels that are typically encountered during a typical pushback or arrival, yelling isn’t an option (unless you’ve got the voice of Godzilla), so you use hand signals to communicate. (That’s a topic for another time.) Also, during these times, the agent in charge is focused on the aircraft’s cockpit, and on communicating with the pilot. The people at the wingtips serve as their eyes and ears for anything out of place.

In particular, pushback is among the most active times where we’re actually handling the aircraft. We’re responsible for backing it onto the taxiway, making sure it’s clear to start the engines, and reactivating the nosewheel steering system on most aircraft.. After the airplane has come to a stop on the taxiway, though, things really start hopping. If you’re onboard, this is all hidden from your line of sight, so I’ll describe it to you. You have anywhere from 3-5 ramp agents attending the aircraft during pushback, although 3 or 4 is typical. On a 4-man push, they are the tug driver/communication link between ground and cockpit, 2 wingwalkers, and the dispatch agent (more on them later). As the plane pushes back, the wingwalkers are typically about 3-5 feet off the wingtip, and the dispatch agent is on the passenger side of the tug, acting as the extended eyes of the driver. Once you reach the taxiway, but before the plane comes to a halt, the dispatch agent moves to a point in front of the cockpit. The taller the plane, the further back you go. A320s were 42 feet, B757s were around 45-50, B737s were about 30-35, and CRJs were as close as 20 feet. Meanwhile, the two wingwalkers slow down and line up with the nose gear. As the plane comes to a halt, the parking brakes are set, and the driver gives a hand signal to move in and prep for departure. The wing walkers duck unde the nose, chock the gear, remove the towbar from the tug, then the aircraft, then reattach it to the tug and remove the chocks. Then, the wingwalkers and tug bug out for the safety of the gate. At this point, if all seems to be in order, the dispatch agent releases the plane to the pilot’s command, then returns to the gate as well. The plane then throttles up and taxis away.

With a well-practiced team, the time between closing the door and releasing the parking brake could be as little as 1 minute. Typical times were 2-3, mainly due to the pilots running checklists in the cockpit.

Next time on Beneath The Wing: Talk With The Hands: An Introduction to Ramp Hand Signals.
 

PhantomCruiser

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We typically used 6 people during aircraft handling... One on each wing, one on the tail, tractor driver, brake rider and the plane captain in charge. But then we were just moving aircraft around in the hangar or on the flight line instead of a terminal.

Hand signals... Muahahahaha! I still remember most of them, but I've often wondered if one in particular is as universal as I think it might be. Place your right arm in front of you making a fist, holding it about head height with the slbow more-or-less at a 90 degree angle. Taking the left hand on top of the right fist and covering as much as you can of the right fist with the figers of the left hand. Then rapidly pull the right fist from the left hand.

This was our signal to the pilots for them to pull their heads from their, uhh.. umm... backsides? yeah, that's the term we used... backsides... (go with that).
 

astrosammy

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Strange, I never noticed the wingwalkers, they should be visible, at least from some seats, right?

Will have time to take a closer look tomorrow... Might post more about it in my blog.
 

MaverickSawyer

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@Astrosammy: Yes, they should be VERY visible. They typically wear Day-Glo vests with reflective stripes on them for added visibility.

@PhantomCruiser: Nope, nothing like that! :lol: We barely interacted with pilots outside of handling ops, let alone knowing them well enough to even try that!
 
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