Ginger Rogers was an agile, talented dancer with incredible timing and footwork; her career on Broadway, in Vaudeville and the cinema cemented her in the hearts of Americans. She could make waltzing beside the ever-graceful Fred Astaire look as normal as a walk across the park, to music of course; her elegant dancing outshining Astaire, because Ginger Rogers, “… did everything he [Astaire] did – backwards … and in high-heels”. One thing that cannot be said of Ms. Rogers was that she was not a 200,000-pound aircraft. So why do so many unappreciated semi-professional rug cutters want to treat a B737 or A320 as if Ginger is pushing back to the taxiway?
There appears to be a new trend making its way in the news these days: dancing wing-walkers. No, not the type of wing-walker who rode on the top of a biplane in the 1930s; the only person’s safety they risked was their own. These are airport personnel who guide the aircraft back, relaying warnings to the pushback tug driver or alerting the pilots to dangers at their wingtips. It is specifically NOT to trivialize these safety people but to explain why they are vital that this article is based.
Look, everybody likes to have fun at work and, according to the job, fun can be had to differing degrees. However, there are times when fun must be put aside, and care must be taken. Firemen don’t spray each other with the fire hose; truck drivers don’t swerve through lanes to the beat of their favorite song. The airline passenger filming the unchoreographed escapades of the breakdancing ramp employee sees only a six by twelve snapshot of the ramp activity. It is far different from the view the pilots see or the person pushing the aircraft back observes, the one who has, for the duration of the pushback, full responsibility of the airplane, flight crew, passengers and every single person on that immediate ramp area.
The person sitting in the pushback tug only sees – an airplane, which takes up 80% of his view, just radome, nose gear and aircraft belly. Off to the side are the ramp employees, aka wing walkers, who can see what is behind the aircraft, to the side of the aircraft and anything along the extensive wingspan that the aircraft occupies in its reverse-bound odyssey. As the aircraft is pushed backwards, the pilots are fully dependent on the ramp crew to maintain a safe distance from anything that can jeopardize the aircraft’s safety, which includes: ramp equipment, personnel, taxiing aircraft and aircraft being pushed back from adjacent gates. There are also aircraft starting engines, whose jet blast can affect safety.
Ramp employees have been known to fall under the wheels of wide body aircraft under the best of conditions; their legs crushed or worse. Ramp employees wear hearing protection that does its job well, blocking any noise from reaching the employee, including aircraft engine noise. Wings have been known to be breached by ramp equipment that was haphazardly parked to the side, their safety gates or loader decks infringing on the aircraft silhouette, the no-go area that an airplane occupies in the gate. Plastic bags have escaped baggage carts, only to be ingested into an aircraft engine, which cancels the flight. The ramp is a dangerous place, whether in a hub airport or a small station. There are hazards galore that threaten safety, life and aircraft.
Let’s expand the view the young passenger/video-taker is missing. As the video-taker is safely sitting inside the aircraft, the mechanics or ramp personnel are pushing the aircraft backwards into an active area. As the pushback continues, the aircraft is turned (backwards) to go left or right to the taxi line. Obstacles that were not originally in the aircraft’s path, now move into view and, thus, into a menacing position. For instance, a fuel truck, heading towards gate 8, may stop to allow the pushback to continue, its tank now in the wing’s path. At night, the dangers are less visible.
This is why wing walkers are not just a safety measure but a critical necessity to the passengers reaching their destinations. However, these airport personnel, whose job it is to keep passengers and aircraft safe, are being distracted from their very important safety work. Suddenly, wing walkers need to ‘get-their-groove-on’ for the occasional airline passenger who, despite ignoring the very important safety brief taking place and having their cell phones off, choose instead to be an audience to these ‘Tony Maneros’. Videos keep popping up in the digital media showing ramp personnel, who are supposed to be watching the clearance of the aircraft wing or tail, now hamming it up for the aircraft passengers. Hoping to be discovered, these guys (and gals) just break out the moves, lighted wands playing light-sabre visual effects across their path, as some passenger eagerly videos the performance.
My take on these antics is simply this: Stop it! Cease! Desist! Please, in the name of God, knock it off!
As the performing ramp employee, aka ‘Tony Manero’, is focused on putting on the best performance of his recent career, the consequences of ignoring the dangers may seem trivial to the average passenger. But are they? Ramp equipment parking areas are prime real estate, although a loader or ground power unit may occupy a footprint off to the side of the aircraft’s silhouette lines (parking area) a safety rail may intrude into the silhouette area, in the turning arc of a wing’s winglet, e.g. maybe someone left a belt loader’s ramp in the raised position. An airplane isn’t pushed back in a straight line; the reason for wing walkers is to prevent damage from unexpected sources.
What can happen if an aircraft’s wing strikes an unyielding metal loader gate? A wing’s winglet could be ripped from the wing tip; this would ground the airplane. Perhaps the gate could rend open the bottom of the wing’s fuel tank, spilling hundreds of gallons of jet fuel over the ramp; this would cause a fire hazard, cancelled flights (other nearby airliners where the fuel migrates to) and missed connections.
Well, what about the performing ramp employee’s safety? Does he see the baggage cart tongue in his path? Does he see the set of equipment chocks laying on the floor where they are not supposed to be? The resulting consequences of the dancing ramp employee tripping over a baggage cart tongue or chocks are a snapped ankle, a spiral fracture or the need to count missing teeth after head-butting a heavy steel cart.
Now there are deice personnel who are joining in the fun; they twitch their hips in the confines of their deice bucket, rolling their hands while doing everything they can to be entertaining, perhaps be the subject of a video that goes viral. Left unchecked, however, these people will be the subject of something, though they will not be happy about it. Their job is to properly deice the airplane, so the aircraft does not crash at the end of the runway. Their job is more important than a viral moment on the net.
To any ramp manager whose employees desire the Broadway lights and attention, please find them somewhere else to work, such as loading aircraft or, better yet, put them somewhere they can’t be tempted by the performing bug. Please! They are dangerous.
Wing-walking may be a tedious job; it is understood. Many of us who have worked for an airline have been wing-walkers at one time or another. Mechanics wing-walk for their entire careers, especially those who work in the hangar or tight ramps when moving aircraft for maintenance. Like everything in aviation, wing-walkers serve a very important purpose: Safety. They provide safety for the airplane, every person on the ramp and every soul on the aircraft.
Oh, and the deice guys who think it is their time to shine with the busted moves? Pay attention to what you are doing. If deicing was that irrelevant, you would be handed a broom and told to sweep the wing or something ineffective as that. This is not a joke; people’s lives literally depend on your work quality.
Please leave the dancing to Ginger Rogers; she was a professional. Her moves were choreographed, practiced and streamlined. Wing walkers and deicers, your job should occupy all your attention – stick to it. Passengers, please don’t encourage the wing walkers to perform; look straight ahead at the flight attendant and, even if you have heard it a dozen times, follow what he or she is saying. And please, everyone traveling, Happy Chanukah, have a Safe Holiday and Merry Christmas. And God Bless our Military and keep them safe all year and especially during the Holiday Season.