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For the novice entering aviation- the idea that aircraft need special handling between flights sometimes comes as a surprise. “You mean you don’t taxi in or out of your hangar?” That question came to me from a friend who flew along on a trip some years ago. We rode together to the airport and upon our arrival- my friend expressed surprise at seeing a tug towing my aircraft out onto the ramp. My friend visited the airport with me once before- when we drove directly to my hangar door- opened it up-

Dave Higdon   |   1st May 2010
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Ground-Handling/ Ground-Support:
It’s what makes aviation move between flights.

For the novice entering aviation- the idea that aircraft need special handling between flights sometimes comes as a surprise. “You mean you don’t taxi in or out of your hangar?” That question came to me from a friend who flew along on a trip some years ago. We rode together to the airport and upon our arrival- my friend expressed surprise at seeing a tug towing my aircraft out onto the ramp. My friend visited the airport with me once before- when we drove directly to my hangar door- opened it up- removed some needed supplies from the cabin – and then left.

This particular day he related to me- “When I saw your plane in the hangar before I just figured you’d pull up- load up- start the engine and drive out the door. But I had wondered how you backed it in; you don’t have a ‘reverse’ do you?”

While en route to our destination- he asked many questions about the ground-side operations – and more in the airport courtesy car after we landed- spurred by the near-instant arrival of a tug to tow away the plane once the engine stopped turning.

Before we left the FBO- he saw another airplane plugged into a ground-power cart- its generator humming quietly as it supplied electricity to keep the air conditioning operating inside the otherwise-idle jet. More questions came from that scene- as well as the surprise at the arrival of a fuel truck – self-service fueling- being the standard for cars and trucks for years as it has- he was surprised every airport didn’t offer a ‘you-pump-it’ option. For some reason he avoided asking questions about the lavatory service cart we watched at work on a large-cabin business jet.

In truth- as we well know- aviation flies on the strength of ground support and ground support vehicles. Aviation requires many conveyances and service machines; devices that serve a variety of needs when the airplane is not in its native environment in the big- blue sky.

From tugs to start carts- lavatory service equipment to auxiliary power suppliers- deicing rigs to fuel trucks- equipment on the ground plays a critical role in supporting business aviation. And these days- more than ever- the trend is to make such machines as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.

Regardless of what ground jobs they perform- business aviation depends on them between flights in order to do the job of transporting people and hardware to the places they’re needed. In the following paragraphs- we’ll look at some of the solutions available for towing- fresh air- electrical power and that one less-heralded need for lavatory services.

Arguably- the most-common piece of ground equipment used and seen on airport ramps is the one that moves the airplane from place-to-place between flights. While they come in different sizes for different size jobs- they all share in the purpose to provide the driver with positive power and directional control- a full view of both the path ahead – or behind- as is often the case – and of the aircraft under tow.

These days- with airport managers and FBOs increasingly working to reduce the environmental impact of their operations- tugs are getting attention as pioneers in the new-power era on their own. As it stands- tugs became the subject of alternative-energy advances decades ago.

Eagle Tugs recently introduced its newest tow tractors- the eTT and eMTT – both zero-emissions machines. Eagle’s newest TT-series machines use an all-wheel-drive and all-wheel-steer system that enhances their ability to handle the toughest towing loads and to provide positive control and traction across a wide range of surfaces- whether it be the towing of a business jet or regional airliner.

Featuring high-power electric powerplants with long duty-cycle batteries that offer fast recharges- these Eagle models can effectively handle a broad range of aircraft weights. These new electrically powered tugs join Eagle Tug’s existing lineups of Diesel- Gas and LP (Liquefied Petroleum)-powered machines. AERO Specialties is the exclusive U.S. distributor for Eagle Tugs.

More information from
www.eagletugs.com or www.aerospecialties.com

Electrically powered solutions for the need to move equipment is standard fare at Lektro. The company pioneered battery-powered machines way back in 1945- before in 1967- Lektro advanced the state-of-the-towing-art with its first machines designed to move aircraft without employing a tow-bar between the aircraft and tug.

The benefit of a tug that needs no tow-bar means never having to eschew a job because the FBO lacks the correct tow-bar. Lektro today manufactures electric-powered tugs (minus tow-bars) for everything from light piston singles to aircraft as heavy as 180-000 pounds.

Lektro’s AP86 series may be among the most-commonly seen of its products- since it is designed to handle everything from the light piston aircraft through jets weighing 28-000 pounds – a range that covers the vast majority of private aircraft flying in the world today.

Higher up the weight scale- Lektro’s AP87 and AP87X models can handle aircraft from trainers to regional airliners with weights as high as 80-000 pounds – with the AP87X designed to accommodate aircraft with longer radomes or fuselages.

Lektro’s AP88 series moves the weight limit to 120-000 pounds (encompassing the ultra-long-range and regional-airliner-based corporate aircraft)- while the AP89 series should easily handle any bizliner- thanks to an upper weight capacity of 180-000 pounds.

More information from

Another source for tugs with an ecological bent is eTug LLC and its direct-drive eTug. Through the use of a regenerative-braking system- the eTug converts stopping power to electricity to recharge its own battery. Capable of being recharged from a standard electrical-system outlet- the DC-20 model is designed for aircraft weighing up to 20-000 pounds while the new AC-30 offers a 30-000 pounds capacity.

More information from

For smaller airport operations- Stinar Corp. offers the TV-550 Flight Line Tow Truck- a product based on a Ford F-350 truck chassis – but customized to pull aircraft up to 70-000 pounds.

The Ford chassis and powerplant mean easy access to the parts needed for maintaining the heart of the machine. The customized chassis provides the necessary heft and durability FBO managers covet.

More information from

Whether the need is fresh air- electricity- fuel- lav service or water- CombiBox System Scandinavia offers a solution that eschews mobile equipment for something that doesn’t move – and when not needed- disappears.

Called the CombiBox System- this integrated service solution provides an underground storage box for all the connections an aircraft needs- with materials supplied via connections to a central source. With one properly sized service unit- the CombiBox provides power- fresh air- water- fuel and lavatory- fluids removal and replenishment through in-the-ground – or- more accurately- in-the-ramp – boxes installed at strategic locations.

These boxes- or pits- are tested to withstand the pressures of a wide-body jet’s nose wheel assembly – and offer a 25-year service life- which means longer cycles between replacements when compared to many a vehicle’s service life at a busy airport. The CombiBox system provides its ecological benefits from the elimination of pollution from internal-combustion-engine powered solutions – and even offers a lower cost source of electricity- since the service unit takes electricity from the public power grid- conditions it for the aircraft application- and routes the power to the box connections.

No diesel-powered generator- and no diesel maintenance- fumes or diesel-fuel costs.

More information from

Another well-regarded supplier in this segment is Unitron- LP: This year Unitron celebrates two historic events- one being its 50th Anniversary and the second being its initial entry into Europe with its Ground Power Units (GPUs). The diverse product line available from Unitron includes aircraft ground support equipment (ranging from the GPUs to preconditioned air (PCA) systems- Facility Power Systems and Onboard Frequency Converters. Unitron manufactures the smallest and lightest-weight GPUs available in the industry.

The Company’s PCA units include environmentally-friendly designs configured either for fixed- all electric applications- or trailer/truck-mounted units with diesel-electric power when mobility is a major requirement. Heating and cooling capacities cover a range of aircraft and climates. Unitron’s lineup of GPUs spans the range of electrical requirements – from 400 Hz to 28 VDC and 270 VDC equipment providing coverage for virtually all commercial- military and business aircraft needs. The company offers its GPUs in mobile- towable- bridge mounted- freestanding and fixed configurations.

More information from

Among the least-glamorous and least-heralded jobs in aviation is that of the Lavatory and Water Service Equipment provider. AERO Specialties is among the companies tackling that need- providing a full line of Lavatory and Water Service Carts to address Corporate Aviation- FBO and Commercial Airline needs.

The smallest member of the lav service family- the LC60 is engineered to fit through standard doorways and under low-set aircraft wings- the LC60 brings an end to the need to open a hangar door on a blustery winter day- letting the heat escape – or- conversely- on a desert-hot day when no one want to free the cold- conditioned air inside the hangar.

The use of modern materials in its construction means no worries about rust or corrosion- as well as any potential chemical interactions during aircraft service and sanitization.

AERO Specialties provides Lavatory Service and Potable Water Carts in capacities ranging from 30 gallons to 270 gallons- with units sized right for any application- and ready for immediate service upon arrival. Add the blue fluid and go to work.

More information on this and other Ground Support Equipment from

Tronair’s lav-service cart- meanwhile- offers its own set of benefits- including ease of use- locking front wheel- an easy one quart-per-stroke manual fill pump- and a light weight (under 190 pounds).

Built from corrosion-resistant materials with an easy to handle towing system- the Tronair cart can fulfill the FBO’s needs for the majority of lav-service jobs likely to turn up on an airport ramp.

More information from

As well as it’s tugs (mentioned above)- Stinar Corp. offers a broad line of lav-service solutions as well as portable-water carts capable of servicing the fresh-water needs of the smallest to largest aircraft. Stinar’s units are sized in steps so the operator can match a cart to its needs- whether servicing the single airplane here and there to multiple-aircraft-capable units for the busiest airport ramps with the largest aircraft.

More information from

Aviation may be the way the business world moves most efficiently- but aviation can’t function without regular assistance on the ground – help matched to the plane and the airport. Whether draining and replenishing the lavatory fluids- pumping cold air into the cabin during a ground stop- keeping the electrical systems humming without draining the batteries- or moving the plane from and back to the hangar between missions- ground-support machinery is what helps keep business aviation in business.

Between the machines we need for these chores and the people trained to use them in our benefit- business aircraft can be at the ready on only slightly more than a moment’s notice. That’s something to remember the next time you get to watch the ramp action on a sweltering day or in the midst of a winter cold snap – from the comfort of the FBO who makes it all happen.

They may not be the glamour machines of the aviation community - and the people who operate them may not sport gold bars on their shoulders - but they all deserve a gold star for the work they do keeping us flying.

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