Hurricane Rita

To the general US population, 2005’s Hurricane Rita doesn’t really stand out, since everyone remembers her sister from two weeks prior, Hurricane Katrina. My husband and I had moved to Houston in 2004, and that September, Hurricane Ivan sat in the mouth of the Gulf making radical waves which we played in when we went to Galveston. Hurricane season was unspectacular for Houston that year, other than the rain bands that arrived from the others in 2004.

ritahouston-jpg
Photo from the National Weather Service Houston on Rita’s 10-year anniversary.

Our daughter was born in February of 2005, making a small storm in our personal lives. 2005’s hurricane season started producing some of the biggest record breaking hurricanes on the books at the time, beginning with the two July hurricanes, Dennis and Emily. For me working at the Houston airport, these monsters merely caused diverted, delayed, and canceled flights, but for the most part, operations as usual. There were bags to be loaded, transferred, and downloaded. There was breast pumping to be done between flights so the husband could feed the baby the next day. Delightfully, I had a fellow ramper pumping for her baby too, so she and I always had a good time chatting about our growing kids during those breaks.

August started off with Tropical Storm Harvey (I would imagine that after this August, that name will be retired!) but the big one to form mid-August was Katrina. At work we watched the weather radar religiously and helplessly watched as Katrina slid over and destroyed New Orleans on August 29th.  Many resident refugees were bused in from New Orleans and surrounding areas since Houston was the nearest big city that had set up large scale assistance. Two weeks later all Houstonians were watching as Hurricane Rita was tracking straight for Houston itself, and by September 20th we knew Rita was coming for us. At this point we were still watching the news of the scope of destruction of New Orleans, and many refugees from Louisiana were terrified to find themselves in a new city with another hurricane headed right for them, again. Houston begun one of the largest evacuations starting with Galveston on the Wednesday the 21st and working northward through the cities.

The aircraft leaving Houston Bush Intercontinental were packed to the gills of people who were leaving, taking some of their worldly goods with them. Katrina had been an eye opener. What really blew my mind was those aircraft coming INTO Houston were just as packed–by news crew equipment from all over the country. While millions were trying to get out, we were unloading media into the city. Camera cases, cord cases, cases of spare batteries, cases upon cases of bottled water, cases of food for the news crews, all of it large and extremely heavy. We took just as much off those planes as we put on them. Employees were told they could leave to seek shelter in other cities when they wanted, so no one was penalized for leaving a day or three early for northern cities. My husband’s youngest sister was visiting us in Houston at this time, spending time with the baby and riding out the storm with us. She was an awesome help, a very practical person in thinking through what we might need in the days ahead. The husband and I considered the offer of shelter given by friends in Austin, but when we did the math, the 90 mile eye of Rita was the size of the distance between Houston and Austin. We didn’t consider that ratio would offer us much protection, so we decided to ride Rita out in Houston.

We lived on the second floor of an apartment in Humble, which is on the northern edge of the city. Our car’s air conditioning had recently failed and Houston was experienceing a heat wave–it was distressingly hot and humid at almost 100 degrees–and to be honest, we were struggling to pay for gasoline every week since it was over $3 a gallon at that time. We watched the lines of traffic trying to leave Houston stack up from our apartment balcony. There is really only four ways to leave the city, and already those highways were at a crawl. The three of us with baby in tow stocked up on water, food, first aid, flashlights, batteries, and anything else that was decided was necessary from a mostly untouched HEB in Kingwood. We emptied the walk in closet and re-vamped it with bedding and supplies for humans and dogs. The baby was seven months old, still breast feeding and on bottled foods, so the safety of her food wasn’t at risk. We only lived a few miles from the airport, so my husband drove me back and forth to work, and I kept working in the rain until I finished my shift at 11pm on Thursday, September 22. Rita was scheduled to make landfall 24 hours later on Friday the 23rd. I remember the ride back home from the airport taking what back ways we could back to our apartment since the highway was at a slow shuffle. Rain smeared the car windows, making it difficult to get a breeze into the hot stuffy car without getting soaked. Had it not been for the baby, I would have stayed on as skeleton crew at the airport for The Company.

Rain was falling harder on the city on the 23rd and we double checked our hide-away and waited. I remember sitting on the apartment balcony watching traffic still lined up on 59 North trying to leave. I didn’t understand why these people, who sat in lines of traffic that I could outpace at a walk, try to find shelter where they were stuck and idling. And stuck was the right word too. Everyone had fled the city–including the people who ran gas stations and grocery stores. The news was already full of stories of cars abandoned at the side of the road, out of gas, already on the road for a day or more, and no open stations to refill them. It was a blessing that we’d stayed put. What drivers we could, we directed to the grocery store and an open gas station we knew of inside Kingwood. I remember standing at the side of the road, looking at the endless line of idling cars, and wondering if that was a new type of hell people would dream about in the future.

TOPIX RITA
Cars on I-45 by the Woodlands, north of Houston. Notice all the stranded in the berm. This area was about 40 minutes from our apartment.

Night came, cars were still lined up on the road outside, and the rain came down. At the very last moment, Rita swung east, making landfall on the Louisana/Texas border, innundating the very people fleeing to escape the Hurricane. In our apartment the electric had gone out but water still flowed from the pipes, and we three adults tried to rest, being ready for the moment necessity (broken windows, flying debris, etc) would send us to that closet. The baby slept in oblivion, the dogs curled up with their favorite humans. I was laying in the living room and my sister-in-law was on the futon, and we were talking quietly.

“I’ve been feeling kinda funny lately,” I told her, “and the baby isn’t nursing like she use to.” She offered a couple of suggestions, mentioning maybe the stress/excitement of the last few weeks could have something to do with it. I shook my head. Finally, I said it out loud. “I think I’m pregnant again. There’s a left over test under the sink, I think I’m going to use it now.” “What?!?” I got up, did the deed, and came back to her, grabbing her hand in support. “It was positive, I’m going to have another baby. We were waiting another six months before trying. Your brother is going to kill me.”

The night Rita came and added misery to the Gulf Coast was the night I found out I was pregnant with my son. I will always remember Rita for that.

****** EPILOGUE: If you’ve read this far, you’ll have figured out my husband didn’t kill me. The next morning after the worst of Rita had passed, I told him, and he laughed instead.

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I Dream of Beechies

In my career as a ramper, I have worked many many many Beech 1900D aircraft. Those were the 19 passenger prop plane that sent more people into a panic then any other aircraft I know. You knew the passenger was in trouble when they’d come face to face with this tiny plane, turn white, and ask in a horrified whisper, “I thought this was a jet!?!?” “Um, no sir, we don’t fly jets to Bradford.”  Their hands would inevitably shake as they grabbed the rubber lines that formed the handrail and reluctantly trod up the four steps to the cabin. 

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

I always wanted to fly on a Beech. I figured it was as close to flying a plane as I was ever going to get or riding one of the Pernese blue dragons created by Anne McCaffrey. There is no bathroom, no flight attendant, only the captain, copilot, and two rows of seats nine plus deep. The passengers would look through the windshield since there was no door on the cockpit. If trouble was ahead, they’d see it coming too. The power plug was under the captain’s side engine and it’s little door panel was secured by two screws. At my Company, the pilot had to start the engine on the copilot’s side and then give you the signal to pull the power. This always  unnerved me slightly because the plane would be surging against the chocks as I pulled the power, screwed the flap down, rolled the power cord back to the ground power unit, hitched the GPU to a tug, and then drove it out of the way of the wing span, then ran back to the pilot to see if it was okay to take the chock off the nose gear before he started #1 engine. God forbid you forgot to screw the power plug door closed; if you did the captain would have to turn off the engine he just started so you could screw the flap shut. If you didn’t the flap could be torn off during flight and damage the plane. The skin is not thick on this plane–a human head decapitated by the props goes right through it and into the cabin. (On another side note, we had one Beech whose a/c number was 555–we called it the Triple Nipple {nickle got turned to nipple}.)

What really gets me about these planes are the noise the props made. Think of the sound the wings of a bumblebee or perhaps a hummingbird on steroids makes. Or–as I found out when summer started–a box fan on high in a window. A window right above my head.

This is a window Beech

I really like a warm bedroom verses a frigid one, so I put a box fan in the window to move air through the room. The husband, not such a fan of warmth, really like this thing running on high. After many nights of poor sleep, I finally realized the problem–it sounds like I’m trying to sleep next to a running Beechcraft, complete with my hair being blown all over my face (or sucked into the fan if it’s facing the other way). Now of the many things I do have on my bedside table, a pair of OSHA approved ear plugs is NOT one of them (yet). Work apparel stays downstairs in my work bag. Besides, if you sleep in earplugs, you REALLY can’t hear when the kids decide to ninja walk into the bedroom to tell you they feel like vomiting right now. So, despite my love of the little plane, I am not going to listen to a window-sized Beech all night long, I’ve had too many years of battling deafness to invite it to my divan also.

So now the husband sleeps downstairs in the air conditioning and I turn off the fan when I’m really settled in. Without the little white light at the top back of the tail, the fan makes a poor night light, even if it does sound like we’re flying to bed.

Sleeping Bin Beauty 

Earlier this year someone thought I was dead.

Granted, during that time period there were a fair amount of people who were overdosing on drugs and would perish or become comatose in their car, so I understand the concern involved. Sleeping in the bin of an airplane might get you sent to another city, but no one assumes you’re dead (unless you’re in the back of an MD-80). Sleeping in the breakroom between flights might get some pranks pulled on you, but you’re relatively safe. Sleeping in history class in school got either a ruler-on-the-desk wake up or some lipstick applied to the somnelant student by the teacher. I’ve slept in my car before, most notably when I had to trailer my sister’s car 200 miles south and then return that same night/morning. Stabbing myself in the thigh with a pen was no longer sufficent to keep me awake, so I slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot for a few hours. I had to get to work by 1pm and that included needing time to return the trailer. At no point was I mistaken as ‘dead’; if I had been, U-Haul would have been furious.

It was late February of 2017 and I had worked late that night/morning. I was fighting off a head infection of some sort, which in addition to being up late and then getting up four hours later at 7am to get the kids to school meant I was prettttyyy sleepy. I had 30 minutes between dropping the kids and the feed store opening, so I pulled off in a local park, wrapped myself in a blanket to fight off the chill, and enjoyed the beauty of the waterfall that could be seen from the driver’s seat. I just remember a long blink and resting my head against the car window. 

I wish my car was this nice.

BOOM BOOOM BOOOM!!

I jumped in my seat and looked out my window, adrenaline flowing so high I could have thrown a clamshell of aircraft brakes across a room. I thought it was a park ranger come to berate me. Half asleep, mostly high, and running on internal emergency mode I rolled down my window to speak with my elderly gentleman awakener. “Yes sir? How can I help you, sir?” was what rolled off my tongue with zero forethought. 

“Are you okay? You’ve been like this for about a half hour–you haven’t moved–and I was worried you were dead!” His white hair was neat and he was dressed in a tan coat with a red scarf. He look very anxious. “This is the second time I’ve knocked on your window!”

“No sir, I’m okay, I’ve just been really sick and I worked late and I had to take the kids to school and I’m waiting for a store to open.” As you can tell I speak in run-on sentences when awoken from a sound sleep and have to give an accounting for my actions. 

The elderly man gave me a hard look over. “You sure you’re okay? Lots of people dying in their cars recently.”
I shook my head, still high on the adrenaline rush. “I’m okay. It’s just a beautiful spot and the sun is rising–I didn’t intend on falling asleep.”

He nodded, apparently satisfied. Then he said, “I was worried. This is how my friend died, in his car at a beautiful park. He took his own life. I didn’t want to have it happen to you if I could help it.”

What do you say to that? What do you say to a person who misses his friend? What do you say to one who still cares, even if he doesn’t know you? What do you say to someone who loves a total stranger, enough to be sure I’m safe? 

I reached out the window and grasped his one hand that had come to rest on my door. “I’m sorry about your friend. I’m sorry I scared you. Thank you for checking on me, I really appreciate your concern.”

He nodded. “Glad you’re okay. You should probably go home and go to bed.”

I drove away from that little park feeling thankful, feeling loved, feeling really tired and sick, and slightly giddy-sick from the post-adrenaline rush. I didn’t get his name but he made an emotional impact that I still feel many months later. The whole episode probably lasted less than two minutes.

I would hope we all care that much for fellow strangers who may be in distress. Or maybe accidently wake them from a dead sleep.

Main Landing Gear

I’ve taken up roller skating as my chosen form of exercise. Not flat track roller derby, but the recreational type we kids did in the 1980s. As an adult I’ve attended several seasons of roller derby as a bystander and have even caught a few derby players in my lap as they tumble off into the crowd. Who wouldn’t want to cheer for ladies who wear the team moniker of the Hellbombers? Their introduction to the track at the begining of a game is heralded with air raid sirens, and it calls to the aircraft worker in me.  Alas, I do not flat track derby but am a mere apprentice skating in circles on a wooden floor. I’ve often thought that the wide, smooth concrete surface of the ramp would make an excellent skating area, but the City and the Company definitely would put a stop to that, pronto!

The local rink has a 70’s and 80’s night and I will go up after work and catch the last hour or so. The floor isn’t packed, it has a wide variety of ages and abilities  attending, and everyone is pretty nice. You can ask for tips and advice without being sneered at. I like roller skating because it’s a low impact sport with high cardio ratio. My arms, shoulders, and knees have been compromised by years of repetitive motion ramp work, so jogging, jump roping, working weights at the gym, and the like are off limits. The sport has improved my balance, has made my ankles and knees stronger (an unexpected  benefit), and actually gives me a whole body workout.

There is one caveat to the “low impact sport”–falling. Then it’s a high speed impact! One skater I spoke with tonight, P.(who as it turns out is a 250 trips a year flier on my Company’s aircraft), said that falls were inevitable and you have about one second to prepare. Bend your knees and drop towards the floor, he said, the impact will be less severe from the distance of one foot verses six feet.

The Snack Stand Lady at my rink, H., is married to a Southwest ramper. He works mornings and I work nights, so if we saw each other it’d be on the Employee Bus. I get to see him on my skating night and we talk shop a little bit, as he assists with skate rentals. We have people we know in common, as airport workers do. It turned out that my frequent flyer skate advisor, P., knows people I know. I have always said that everyone knows someone at the airport!

I wear the traditional roller skate and not inlines (blades). I’d like to say it’s because if a set of quads are good enough to land a 757, then I should be pretty safe. 

Boeing 757 main landing gear. Looks like a quad roller skate. (Copyright Airliners.net)

As it turns out, I’m a little klutzy and trip over the front wheel of the inlines; short legs and all that. Plus blades put too much pressure on my broken arches, so I’m waiting for my offspring’s feet are large enough so I can give him the pair of blades I bought years ago. The way he’a growing, that should be another six months. Then HE’S gonna need those 757 landing gears!!

I did fall on a rink almost a year ago. It was bad and the reasons behind it are embarassing, but as I lay on the hard wood floor and the skating ref crouched above me asking if I was okay, I thought, ‘It shouldn’t be this hard to make my mouth move and form words.’ I did get up, checked the size of the goose egg on my skull, computed how bad the concussion headache was going to be (Bad, with a capital B), temporarily fixed my newly broken new glasses, and finished the skate session. By golly, I wanted my money’s worth of skating!!

I imagine it looked something like this.
I’ve gotten a concussion at work. It was in 1997 and it involved a cargo door with broken counterbalances. Generally, you yank the release cord and the cargo door gently settles into position to lock the door. In the 1997 incident, my skull was the stopping point of the 100+lb door. Ouchie. Nowadays the trend is to bash my head on the fire suppression system’s protective steel cages that protrude 2″ from the cargo ceiling of an Embrarer 170/175. It hurts like the devil, but I haven’t done it hard enough to concuss yet. The day that happens there will be staples or stitches involved! 

My coworkers think I’m crazy to pick up roller skating at my late age (I’m at least 10 years younger then they are!) but my last skate partner, Ken, was 84 years old. I think if I can survive airplanes, skating shouldn’t be too lethal. Just ask Ken.

It’s Really Sandy Out Here

Dust storm!!!
This photo was taken at PHX Skyharbor Airport in Arizona. Coming at the airport is a haboob, which is a giant sandstorm (remember that scene in The Mummy?). A girlfriend of mine had the opportunity to live in PHX for a year and said that haboobs are like snowstorms–except it’s rocks and sand blasting your skin off and your lungs out. Duck and cover is the name of the game. Needless to say she has since returned to the Midwest where black ice and snow drifts are her worst problem. I have friends who transfered to work at PHX two years ago and they say haboobs + ramp work = suckiness!

Thankfully, my airport is not in haboob territory, but the City uses hot sand on the runways in the winter in addition to plowing. The sand not only melts the winter weather from the runways but also provides traction for the aircraft tires. We’ll have planes roll up to the gate and the underside of the wing, the main gears, and the tires are caked in a slushy cold sand and snow mix. There are times I’ve tried to time darting under the wing to chock the wheels to avoid getting big, cold, gritty blobs of runway mix from falling on my head and down the neck of my sweater. It fails more than it suceeds since the brakes are putting off extreme heat and is melting the snow faster than I can get under and get out. Ick. Remember in Calvin and Hobbes where Calvin would make frozen slushballs just to get Susie? Lemme tell you, the plane is Calvin!

Winter eventually ends and the City plows go back into hiding at the garage. Warm spring rains begin and warm spring winds follow, blowing aloft a large portion of the sand that hadn’t been scraped backup by the plows. The wind blows steadily at the airport (nothing to impede it) with varying speeds, spreading the sand into the sewers, the corners of the building, into dunes on the ramp up to a couple inches high. We would ask the City to send out the vacuum trucks to pick up the beaches that were forming. A couple years ago it wasn’t until we delivered several five gallon buckets of sand to the City’s nice sand-free office that the sweeper trucks were sent out. In the summer you can find large patches of weeds and grasses growing on sections of the concrete ramp where the sand is built up and stable enough to make an ecosystem.

After my first couple years on the ramp, I went to purchase new glasses. Not only had my prescription changed but something just was off. I credited it to old glasses. My optometrist looked over my glasses very carefully and asked, “What are you doing to your glasses?” “Nothing,” I replied, bewildered. “The lenses…. the antiglare coating is gone…. the lenses are microscopically shredded, like they’ve been sandblasted!” Little did he know how right he was!!!

I use to have a dandruff problem most of the year. I was humiliated and felt unclean, buying many bottles of Head and Shoulders shampoo, trying to eradicate the problem. There is nothing like digging a fingernail into your scalp and coming our with a nailful of dirt and grit. One day I was able to take a relative out on the ramp and show him around (pre 9/11) since he was an airplane enthusiast. I showed him several of our parked aircraft and he got to watch a live 757 flight being loaded and pushed. He enjoyed his experience immensely and as we returned to the terminal he wiped the sweat from his bald head. “Oy! Gross! I’m covered in sand!” A lightbulb went off in my head. At the next appointment with my hairdresser I asked her, “Is this dandruff?? It itches and there’s a snow field on my shoulders! Shampoos aren’t helping!!” She took a close look, rubbed a sample between her fingers and said, “No, this is mostly sand. From where are you getting all this sand in your scalp?”

There was one warm spring day on the ramp where the wind was the type you lean into just to stay upright, and I took shelter on the lee of the aircraft body. It was shaded and I looked into the sky (because it was a pretty blue) and watched in amazement at what looked like meteorites. It was the sand from the airfield blowing in for dozens of feet above my head, in a sparkling silicate light show. It was a human sand blasting day. Guys who wore contact lenses on these types of days had massively irritated and running eyes halfway into their shifts. They had the economy sized bottles of Visine in their pockets just to get the particles out. 

So the next time you see me rub my eyes or scratch my head and see a light dusting on my shirt, it’s most likely me shedding sand. It’s a gift from winter that keeps on giving most of the year.

Your Bags Aren’t Nice

My mom use to ask me, “Do you treat the bags nice?” I would give her a long look and say, “No.”

The Company tells us, “Treat the bags like your own.” I do–but I also pack in a way you can drop my bag 10ft and the only thing you’ll hurt is the concrete. (The secret is to put the breakables in the middle of your suitcase, padded in socks, sweaters, whatever.)

In this immediate time, I have received this awkward bag, soft on one side, hard on another, and heavier than heck. Even TSA was wondering. Just don’t drop the bag on your toe, it’ll strike you out!!


You know, they do make specific bags for your sporting gear.

All That Glitters Isn’t Gold–It’s Ice

Most of the US is stuck under a polar vortex of some sort, dropping balmy holiday temperatures to the January/February type of cold. The golden tinsel on your festive tree has a frosted edge, I’m sure, and the kids are praying for coal. At the airport, we look around the brightly glittering airfield and ramp areas with a certain dread–all that glitter is a coating of ice. 

Everything but the wing is covered in a layer of ice.
If you ever have the opportunity to watch rampers out the concourse windows during your flight delay, you’ll see that we mince across the ramp in this weather. It’s too dangerous to actually walk, the risk of slipping and falling are astronomically high. Every so often you’ll see a ramper pulling a ballerina or Michael Jackson move on what looks like snow. Unfortunately, that snow is a two inch thick plate of ice and that ramper just pulled a back muscle in the feat of remaining upright. Add mincing, numerous layers (including multiple hats and gloves), sun glare, and 30 minutes to turn their aircraft to the mix, that ramper is exhausted by the end of their shift.

In my nine months as a secretary in a medical billing office many year ago, I frequently heard the ladies complain about how cold the office was. Nowadays my office is 8*F and I need ice skates to go about my day. There are many rampers further north than I am that would find eight degrees positively balmy. With the windchill factored in, the ramp at Minneapolis, MN was showing -48* the last few days. You know how injuries hurt worse when you’re cold? I dropped a piece of luggage on my toe and I thought it was a sledgehammer. You know the line in Peter Gabriel’s ‘Steam’ where he wails “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”? That’s the noise I made.

Yesterday my locality was blessed with the temps going above freezing and a gentle rain ensued, followed by dropping below freezing again. Today everything is sheathed in a sublime glaze of ice. That means the seats of the equipment, ignition switches, curtains on the bag carts, steering wheels, gear shifters, the brake pedal–everything is coated in scintillating ice which won’t go away. It’s beautiful at first but very quickly becomes a hazard. There’s nothing like the accelerator freezing when you’re trying to not punch a hole in an airplane. Many of the procedures we find unnecessary in good weather are vital to keeping aircraft from being holed in icy conditions.

‘Why not salt?’ you may ask. Road salt eats airplanes–holey planes are really frowned upon by the public, no matter how it was accomplished. We sodium formate, which can be used to de-ice the ramp surface. The runways are doused with hot sand. The aircraft are baptized in anti-ice fluids. 

Looks like a regular day on the job.

Pilots also find ice challenging–challenging to stop their aircraft. Already there have been multiple reports in the news feeds of a/c sliding off runways. The funniest sight is found in the employee parking lots; flight attendants returning from warm weather stations and watching them struggling to sweep snow and scrape ice off their cars dressed in heels and business length dresses. I am sure they are not muttering blessings during this process.

Be safe this winter, readers. Those of us on the ramp are use to dealing with the bad conditions for 6 – 12 hours at a time. The office workers have a lot less practice in this weather. In the meantime, I like diamonds and gold sparkle–but not the icy type!!

A Bad Day At Work

passing-away
Death by cardboard box.

My training instructor, Jack, was a funny guy and very good at his job. He was deathly serious at the beginning of our ramper training, impressing on us that we were about to start working in one of the most dangerous industries for fatalities. “You’ll get hurt doing this job, but you will die if you don’t follow the procedures I’m about to teach you. I’m going to teach you the B.I.B.L.E.–Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” The next two weeks of classroom training consisted of just that–what to do, what to look for, and what NOT to do. Many of us remain alive today thanks to his sharp wit enlivening what could have been dull-as-rocks-but-essential-to-not-be-killed classroom training.

“Watch where you’re walking. Don’t assume other drivers on the ramp see you. Don’t assume aircraft engines are shut off. Don’t be careless. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t pass between carts that are hitched together. Don’t participate in horseplay. Watch for your coworker’s safety. DON’T watch the propellers spin.”

“Don’t get complacent. Don’t bring a bad day to work with you.” Death occurs with both of these don’ts.

boeingingestion
Engine of a Boeing 737 after ingesting an airline employee, post accident investigation photo.

The above picture horrifies most people and rightly so. This is the reality of my job. Ingestion constitutes a short bad day for the deceased employee and a long bad day for the employees who witnessed this, the passengers, the company, everybody. This is a very bad day for the family of the deceased. Jack told us in training, “Leave your bad day at home. If you bring your bad day to work with you, someone will get hurt.”

The man who died in this picture was an aircraft mechanic in Texas, who had many years on the job with his company. I don’t know what his state of mind was, if he was having a bad day, but I am willing to assume he’d gotten complacent, particularly after several decades of working on and maintaining engines that, at times, have to be running for further diagnosis. I wasn’t there, I don’t know the particulars, but it is a sobering reminder of what the end of my day may look like if I’m not careful. For example, there was a day eight years ago where there was a family emergency happening, and while it was not directly involving me, my mind was nowhere near the airport or my job. After a couple close calls on the gate I went to my supervisor and asked to be sent home, saying that someone was going to die if I stayed. He said “Go”and I left for the day. My coworkers outlived my bad day.

air-india-ingestion
Mumbai Dec. 17 :- The remains of Air India ground staff that had been sucked in an aircraft engine at Mumbai airport, Flight No. AI 619 Mumbai – Hyderabad.  (photo credit: Ravindra Zende)
This is a post-ingestion accident photo for Air India. Yes, that is the mortal remains of a fellow ramper who wasn’t fully sucked in. “Why,” you’re shouting in horror at the screen, “why are you posting these?? It shows a lack of respect for those who died!!” I’m posting because I need to be reminded of the consequences of what a really bad day at work looks like, and because you need to know the risks your airline friends take daily. Remember these pictures and the risks we take when you’re trying to get reduced fare or standby passes from us.

The danger isn’t always getting sucked into cowled engines either. During my training class in 1996 Jack told us of a ramper who’d been distracted and wasn’t watching where he was while working a propeller plane. This man was decapitated by the spinning props–and then his head was launched through the skin of the aircraft into the occupied passenger cabin. There was a lot of therapy the company had to pay for after that. Another incident happened a few years ago at a small airport local to me. There was a new hire ramp employee who’d been on the job for several months. He was a hard worker and very good at doing his job. One day he was not careful and was decapitated by the propeller of the small craft he was working. My sister knew his family.

I am thankful for the training I have received through the years. Training new hires is always tricky because they don’t know what to watch out for yet. We’ve all been forcibly yanked away from danger by coworkers at some point. Branded into our soul is the command to NEVER WALK IN FRONT OF AN ENGINE. Not until you’ve verified visually, audibly, and aurically that it is turned off and spooled down. Never trust someone else’s word that an engine is turned off. Never assume since the rotating beacons are off that the engines are off too. Pilots turn the beacons on and off in the cockpit. I’ve seen beacons left on for the entire ground time and other times never turned on at all at departure. We’ve had pilots park their Boeing 737s, grab their bags, and race to their next outbound flight–all the while forgetting to turn off the engine of the plane he cruised in on!!!!

Go behind the engine to chock the wheels, not in front of it. You’ll be able to come back to work if you get blown away–there’s no coming back after turning into a human slushie.

Visions on the Ramp


In June I saw this LowBow, which is a first (for me). It was raining and the clouds blew to the east, leaving a rainbow behind. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a rainbow barely make it above the horizon in all my years at my airport.

Years ago, I was waiting to for a plane to arrive at the gate so I could pick up the connecting bags and run them to their connecting aircraft. That afternoon I saw the best weather phenomenon ever. Facing directly west on the compass, the sky was split down the middle into two, like Two-Face on Batman. To the right of center were blacker than black storm clouds that had lightning arcing through them. To the left of center the sky was clear and a beautiful pristine sky blue. The piece de resistance was the rainbow that started in those storm clouds and arced all the way back towards the blue sky.

Outstanding. I have learned to love the sky.

 

Caution: Falling Objects

Working at the airport, one doesn’t necessarily worry about the sky falling. We are not Chicken Littles. There are only a few doorways that concern us, and honestly, they’re extreme low bin ceilings, doorsills, and protective cages covering fire suppression systems in the aircraft bins.  And people falling out of jetways onto the ramp. All of those things endanger our craniums. Falling bird poop is a concern, but that’s more of a blow to our pride.

Our job has the potential to be very deadly and being turned into a human slushie via engine ingestion is one of the more colorful ways rampers and other ground workers can die. Decapitation, heat stroke, hypothermia, and being crushed to death are more common. Being poisoned by long term toxic chemical exposure is also a concern. These are merely a few reasons more why this job is worth being paid more than $9 an hour; I don’t think the reasons listed above are risks you’ll find at Starbucks.

At times, our job requires us to move underneath the airplane, such as to check for possible damage to the skin, to attach air conditioning hoses, accessing the panels to open cargo doors, hooking up pressure hoses for an air start, or simply to just put big rubber chocks at the landing gear so the plane stays where it’s parked. A vast majority of the time airplanes are solid creatures that mostly don’t move, but as this photo shows, occasionally landing gear fails on the gate. If you search the net, you’ll find lots if pictures of various aircraft with landing gear that failed while on the tarmac.

(Photo credit: Ryan Michaels)

See where the airplane is touching the ground? There’s a space under there I have to crawl under in order to place a locking pin and hook up a towbar in order to get your plane off of the gate. Thankfully, no ramp agent was killed while working this Southwest flight, but I am sure the passenger who took the picture was glad he was on the plane, and the plane was not on him.

My Company implemented policy discouraging employees from crossing between the aircraft and the pushback tractor, despite being a main work area. To walk around the nose and then the tractor adds many feet of walking which is not necessarily condusive to an on-time departure. Think– I’m carrying your 67 lb. carry-on and three umbrella strollers from the jetway with only sixty seconds before I have to push your plane off the gate, you better believe covering an additional 50 feet is less than ideal. Crossing over the towbar and under the nose saves my arm and keeps my assets from being disciplined for having a “late” plane. The fact that at any moment the plane may play Hungry, Hungry Hippo is just part of the job risks. It’s not my upper management that will perish if there is a mechanical failure, but I will accept the risk in their behalf. After all, they’re the ones that leave us out to play in the lightning.

In twenty years this hasn’t happened at my Airport–we’re more likely to have a plane slide off a runway in bad weather. However, we’re trained not to trust aircraft any further than we can throw them. It’s good to have a reason to stay sharp and have quick reflexes.

Airplanes like to play deadly games.