Rites of the Ramp

Earning and learning respect while topping, towing, and tugging.

June 1, 1993

If I were king of the flight-training forest, every trainee would serve at least a brief apprenticeship as a line attendant, fueling, cleaning, towing, and otherwise attending to the needs of the airplanes that he or she, and all the other pilots on the premises, will fly.

Go ahead and groan, but my theory is based on the observation that pilots who have been responsible for *handling* airplanes — tying them down, chocking their wheels, cleaning off the bugs, fueling and oiling, installing gust locks, and gingerly maneuvering expensive metal at the end of a wobbly tow bar — develop the kinder and gentler touch in the air as well.

If you want a true sense of what the personal touch really means, watch a float-flying bush pilot as he ties up at the dock or read the tales of north-woods skiplane drivers who sleep with their engine oil on cold nights. A kind of bonding takes place when a pilot becomes a partner in the care of his or her aircraft.

Because most students and new pilots rent aircraft, the closest they come to contemplating the value of preheaters, wing covers, winterization kits, heat shields, cleaning accessories, and other such items is when perusing the pages of mail-order aviation catalogs or skimming the maintenance section of their pilot's operating handbook. Thus my contention is that a few sessions on airplane care, or a few weekends working the line at the local rental outfit, can pay big dividends. The experience can restore humility to those who may need such a refresher, as well as breed some deserved appreciation for the folks who do this unglamorous work for a living.

There is nothing like an icy winter morning on a New England airport ramp to separate the pilots from the prima donnas. Lesson One: If you are going to fly in February, dress warm and show up early. Digging today's trainer out of yesterday's snowdrift or hauling it out of the back of a chilly hangar frequently is part of the lesson (at no extra charge). So are brooming off snow, preheating, and taxiing to the pumps for a top- off, if you are piloting the first flight of the day. In the summer, substitute cleaning off smashed bugs for brooming snow and preheating, and possibly add a preflight pass down the runway in the airport pickup truck to shoo away deer or GU-11s (sea gulls).

At one of the local airports hereabout in the Bangor, Maine, area, we routinely fuel up the airplanes ourselves on weekends and sometimes during the week, too, if the line staffer is buffing the office floor. It's nippy at the top of that ladder as you fuel a high-wing trainer, but the view is unmatched for observing the rotations of the windsock in a post-frontal breeze.

All done? Then come on down off that ladder, detach the ground line, hunt up a funnel, and let's add a quart of oil. Make sure it's the right oil for your aircraft. One last thing before you fasten your seat belt and shoulder harness: Did you verify that the fuel filler caps are secured? Don't blame the lineman if they aren't.

Self-sufficiency is an admirable trait in a pilot, one that cannot help but be noticed at such critical times as check rides or when seeking permission to rent an airplane. Nonpilot passengers debating whether to fly with you form their impressions more by observation and gut instinct than by their limited knowledge of aviation. Which image do you suppose is more pleasing to them — seeing their pilot plead for line service on the radio, or observing their captain purposefully attending to the needs of the aircraft (their needs) himself?

Developing sensitivity to all your aircraft's needs, whether it is in flight or on the ground, is the main dimension a line-educated pilot acquires that his waiting-room-bound kin may not. Such awareness leaves a lasting imprint on your professionalism as a pilot and brings on the realization of such eternal truths as the notion that a well-secured tiedown rope is no less important to aircraft structural integrity than touching down at the correct speed on the runway.

One day while securing an airplane after a training flight with a member of a local flying club, the fellow said to me, "You are the first instructor to help me tie down an airplane." I cringed at the thought of a CFI strolling imperiously toward the warm comfort of the office, leaving his student to attend to the manual labor that accompanies flight. Also, if the student were securing the aircraft improperly or neglecting control locks or such courtesy items as rolling back the trim wheels to the takeoff settings out of consideration for the next pilot, how would the instructor know? What example was being set by the instructor's disinterest in the aircraft's security?

By contrast, the chief pilot of an outfit where I occasionally fly charters, a designated examiner and company check airman, is usually the first one out on the ramp to help push, pull, fuel an airplane, ramp a floatplane, or heave snow away from the hangar doors. Examples, good or bad, are contagious.

One of the lowest paying and most enjoyable jobs I have ever held was as a line attendant and weekend office manager for an aviation company. Every morning, a Cessna Caravan packed full of boxes would arrive to have its parcels unloaded onto a waiting delivery truck. We'd then store the jumbo single in the hangar until evening, when it would load up again and depart. Throughout the day, numerous aircraft would be moved in and out. I would respond to calls for anti-ice treatment, external power carts, catering, airplane washes — the works. In my spare time, arranging the hangar, patrolling the ramp for harmful debris, and keeping ahead of the flight schedule became a matter of strategic planning and, yes, pride.

If you get a chance to work the line, no matter how briefly, take it. The experience affected the way I fly; now it affects the way I teach. It also stirred my belief in the old saying: "Take care of your airplane, and your airplane will take care of you."

Dan Namowitz is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot and CFII and is a freelance writer based in Maine.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.