Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The secret conversation

I apologise for the silence over the past two weeks but I've been kept busy, not with work, but other things. Hopefully I'll get a bit more writing accomplished over the next few weeks. Continuing on from my last post about walk around checks, this one will give you a little insight into what the guy wearing the bright luminous headset is doing during push backs.

So with my walk around checks complete I'll plug-in the headset so I can communicate with the crew. If it's familiar type like the A320 or 737s, I know where to find the plug. If it's something I'm not used to working with such as an ATR, I'll stumble about around the nose and gear looking for some sort of plug to connect the headset to because I forgot to ask the crew where it is when talking to them.

Once I'm plugged in, depending on the aircraft, I'll either give the Push to Talk (PTT) switch on the headset a click to let the crew know I am now ready when they are, or stand in their line of sight awaiting their call. For 737s, I can easily stand within the headset cable's extension and the first office or captains line of sight, as they sit much lower than the A320s. For the Airbii, I'll give a a quick mike click, as to see the flight crew I would need to move a considerable distance out from the aircraft stretching my precious cable. It extends to something like 12m when stretched but I never pull it this far as I don't fancy trying to recoil and carry 12m of cable away once finished.

Some aircraft have a Pilot or Flight deck call switch located next to the port for my headset, though I've never used it it. I figure the last thing they want is another ding or dong going off in the cockpit as they make the final preparation before push back.

Speaking of thee Pilot call buttons, I was almost caught out once with a 767. On the 767s I have worked with, the headset plug is located on the back of the nose gear together with some other buttons. Beside the headset plug is a LARGE RED button, and most, including myself would assume it is the flight deck call switch. Assume nothing. Experience has taught me flight deck call switches are located next to the headset plug, but equally experience has taught me not to push large red buttons unless I'm certain I know what they do. The red button is in fact an APU fire extinguish button. Press it and I'm sure you will get the attention of the flight deck, but more a long the lines of chronic swearing as they wonder why the APU has just died and the fire bottle discharged.

When the crew are ready, the First Office or Captain will speak to me on the headset, depending on company procedure, generally starting with,

"Cockpit/flight deck to ground, helloooo?''

I'll respond with a hello with more o's than his. Again, dependent on the airline procedure or the captain in question, he may well ask for my checks to which I reply that all the aircraft doors and hatches are secure, ramp workers and equipment is out of the way, the chox are removed from the wheels, and the steering by-pass pin and tug are all in place.

By this stage, he may already have his clearance from Air Traffic Control or ramp control, to push back. If so, he'll tell me they're cleared for push and start, together with which runway they'll be departing from. It's important I know which runway or taxiway he'll be taking after the push back, so as I leave him pointing in the right direction. So providing both parties are ready and clearance is received, I'll ask him to release the parking brake and wait until he replies with a unambiguous 'Parking brake released, cleared to push' message or words to that effect.

Ground to Flight deck?
Go Ahead
We're ready for push back, release parking brake please.
Parking brake released, cleared to push for runway 30/taxiway Golf etc.. let us know when we can start engines
Ok pushing back, standby for start.

The aircraft is now 'in my control' through the tug. I signal to the tug driver the parking is off and we can push back, and through a series of further embarrassing hand gestures making me look like an 1980's dancer, tell him what direction to leave the aircraft facing.

So as we start moving back, I'll be on one side of the aircraft watching the wingtip making sure we don't hit anything, and a colleague will be on the other side doing the same. When it's safe to do so, I'll inform the flight deck they are clear to start engines and they'll let me know the sequence they are starting, such as no.2 first followed by no.1

Clear to start number 2 and 1 as you wish
Starting engine 2 then 1

As the engines start up, I'll observe them to make sure nothing out of the ordinary happens such as black smoke, or foreign objects being sucked into engine or fire. I believe there are still some airlines who require the person on the headset to be an engineer for the push back, but none that I deal with.

When we have finished pushing the aircraft and come to a stop, the tug driver will signal to me that he has set the brakes. I'll call the flight deck and ask them to set the aircraft parking brake again. Once I'm told it's set, we'll start disconnecting the tug, towbar and remove the pin from the nose gear. If all the engines have been started and everything appears normal by this stage, the crew will inform me I can disconnect, revert to hand signals and show them the pin.

I'll reply and tell them what side to look for us on for the hand signals, wish them well and disconnect myself from the aircraft. I'll then walk with my colleague to one side of the aircraft, my friend will hold up the steering pin he has removed, that has a large red flag attached. It tells the crew they now have steering control back, and I'll give a thumbs up signal followed by a wave letting them know we're all clear from the aircraft.

Ground to flight?
Go ahead...
Push complete, set parking brake please
Parking brake set, 2 good starts, clear to disconnect and revert to hand signals, thank you
Ok watch for the pin on the left, good morning

I told you it wasn't exciting, but maybe the next time you're sitting at the gate and your companion asks what the guy on the headset is doing you'll be able tell them. However that's just in my part of the world and how we work, I'd be interested in what it's like elsewhere. Any input from crews on their experiences with ground crew and push procedures would be interesting.


Carl said...

I've just come back from a night away in Dublin on business (flying out of Doncaster), and whilst waiting for the flights to be called I was watching the ground crew. It was really cool to be able to understand parts of what was going on as a result of reading your blog.

My boss asked me a question which I didn't know the answer to, and I thought you might...

When a flight is advertised as "the 15:20 flight", is that the pushback time, arrive at runway time, wheels up time or some other time?

Thanks for a really interesting blog.

Dispatcher said...

Carl, thanks for the comment.
The 1520 is the off block time, ie push back time off stand.

In my experience, the actual flightplan will then be filed for airborne at maybe 12-15 minutes after this scheduled time for actually getting airborne, depending on the airport in question.

Similarly, the arrival time is the onblocks time as well.

dpierce said...

Hello there!

I've heard stories of people in your position finding the pin left in from maintenance that locks the landing gear in the down position. I was wondering if you have you ever discovered such a situation, or really any unusual situation that required you to stop the pushback.

Thanks for blog!

Rainmaker said...

I really enjoy reading your posts. Especially the different perspective from the ground. As a very frequent traveller it's cool to get a behind the scenes view of what happens while I'm waiting to go somewhere.

Keep it up!

Dispatcher said...

I've never had any instances of finding the ground lock pin still in place, yet anyway.

It did happen a few years ago at the airport I work but with another company. The flight had departed and couldn't raise the gear so had to return to the field. They had told ATC the engineers had left the pin in place and couldn't raise the gear. I can only guess they had been in touch with their engineers via radio and diagnosed it to be that, can't think of any indications in the flightdeck that would let them know the pin was still in place.

Anyway, it returned, pin removed and off it went again with some red faces I'm sure. If we left our steering bypass pin in place we'd find out about it sooner, as with no steering the aircraft would simply roll straight on. Hence the red flag attached to it, so we don't forget it, and can show the crew it's been removed. Though I can just see it happening someday that the flag detaches from the pin and we walk off with the flag alone leaving the pin in place. :-)

Grant said...

A couple of stories from Australia:

1) Virgin Blue are using a remote controlled tug for push back. It connects to the left main gear on their 737s and the guy with the headphones controls it all. Pulls the aircraft back and turns it ready to head out. Quite funky to watch.

2) Was told of a case in Sydney where a QANTAS domestic flight came in during a time of major thunderstorms. Had been lightning strikes in the area but none currently so ground crew were out and working. Aircraft taxis to the gate, ground dude goes to plug in his headset, there's a massive flash & ZAP and he wakes up on the ground in the wet some distance from the aircraft. Ooops - slight static discharge there :)

Really enjoying the blog - keep it happening :)

Dispatcher said...

Remote control tugs, times are moving on! I was watching a few videos on recently of different tugs and equipment around (sad I know but hey, I like to keep up to date on work)

Interesting story about the Qantas guy. When there are thunderstorms forecast we don't use headsets, because sure enough we'd be the quickest route from the aircraft to the ground if it got struck. I hadn't ever thought about the static build up! I won't be rushing to plug in my headset then on arrival, I'll let someone else touch the aircraft first from now on.
On that note, most of actually wear anti-static footwear. Never know when you might cause a random spark sending the re-fuelling guy rocketing into the sky

Ed said...

Ground to flight?

Really? I thought it was only Hollywood that used the own-callsign, callee-callsign order. Anybody in the rest of aviation or, as far as I know, any other professional use of radio or similar comms would use Flight, Ground.

Dispatcher said...

Good point. I used to hold an amateur radio licence, not sure if I renewed it this year or not anymore.

The flight deck to ground or ground to flight deck isn't a formality, it's more just myself ensuring I have their attention before requesting something.
My other collegues may do it differently or not at all, and different captains will use various versions if any.

Aluwings said...

Good clear comms between the ground crew and the flight deck are so important to making things go smoothly. I've been around long enough to remember when we relied mainly on hand signals. But that was too often a set-up for an accident when anything unusual happened - like a technical snag that delayed our departure from the ramp.

Thanks for the look at it from your angle. Stay safe, warm and 'cool' out there!