Tug life – towing aircraft at Heathrow Airport

Other than a sense of relief that they’re on their way, few people pay attention to the first couple of minutes of their journey – the bit when the aircraft is going backwards. But downstairs on the ramp there’s a lot going on. The process of pushing the aircraft off the gate involves brute force, great teamwork, a highly skilled driver and an extraordinary vehicle. In ‘Tug Life’ we spend a day with one of our Heathrow tug drivers and learn about his job.

The job

Euge Seery is a tug driver and maintenance assistant at our Heathrow engineering hangar. His job involves manoeuvring aircraft into and out of our hangar and towing them to and from the terminal building on the other side of the airfield. To do that he drives a tug. This is a huge, powerful and extremely heavy tractor that can push a 400-tonne, fully loaded Boeing 747 off the gate. You certainly need your wits about you. Towing something that’s 75 meters long and 63 meters wide on the busy Heathrow taxiways takes some doing. It also involves talking to the control tower and listening to the constant chatter of ground movement control to make sure the tow is conducted safely. Once the aircraft has got to where it’s going, Euge and his crew need to make sure it’s safely parked with all necessary chocks, ground power and safety equipment in place.

A typical tow would be done by a three-person crew; one driving the tug, an engineer in the flight deck of the aircraft operating the parking brakes and a third person ‘on the headphones’ who monitors the whole process.

The first thing the crew do when they arrive at an aircraft is insert a special pin which bypasses the nosewheel steering in the flight deck. The pin allows the wheel to turn freely and gives the tug driver control of the aircraft. This is the pin with a long bright red ‘remove before flight’ ribbon that you can sometimes see being waved at the pilots just before the aircraft starts taxiing towards the runway. They then attach the towbar to the aircraft nosewheel.

Once the tug is attached to the front of the towbar, the chocks on the aircraft are removed and the tug driver will call up the control tower to ask permission to push off stand. The aircraft beacons, those flashing red lights at the top and bottom of the aircraft, are turned on. These signal to anyone nearby that the aircraft is about to move. At this point Euge raises the cab of the tug so he can look behind him, selects reverse gear and gently pushes the aircraft backwards. While some tugs have cabs that face backwards, our team prefer the traditional ‘look over the shoulder’ style of pushback. During the tight twisting pushback, the tug will be in four-wheel steering mode and the driver carefully watching markings on the aircraft that tell him how far he can turn. There will also be ‘wing walkers’ carefully watching the aircraft to make sure there are no obstacles. Once out on the taxiway, the driver will select two-wheel steering and fourth gear (it’s a semi-automatic gearbox) for the forward tow.

The man

Euge has worked at Heathrow for 30 years. He began his career with Air France, first as a ramp worker before learning to drive a tug. He joined Virgin Atlantic 14 years ago.

“I remember my first solo live pushback well. It was 1992 and an Air France 747 packed with celebrities going off to a press launch in Morocco. So no pressure!” says Euge who has also pushed back Concorde several times, including once with the King of Jordan onboard! Before he got to the point where he was let loose on a real aircraft full of people, Euge undertook a six-week training course and did several supervised pushbacks. The push, with a towbar, involves a complicated double pivot action with strict limits on how far the aircraft wheel can turn. Our tug drivers also need to hold special airfield licenses to drive on the taxiways and live runways, something they need to do occasionally when towing to remote parts of the airfield.  The normal speed for towing an aircraft is a leisurely 15 kph. When not moving aircraft around the airfield Euge helps his engineering colleagues with a variety of tasks as well as doing equipment checks.

The tug

The tugs that Euge and his colleagues drive are built for pushing and pulling power, not speed. Filled with concrete and weighing a colossal 55 tonnes, the tugs are driven by an 11-litre engine tuned to produce the torque needed to push a fully loaded 400-tonne Boeing 747 off the stand.

  • The Schopf S396C Aircraft towing tractor
  • Weight  55 tonnes
  • Engine – 11 litre 6 cylinder turbo diesel
  • Torque – 2000 Nm (about four times more than a Ferrari)
  • Top speed – 20 mph
  • Gearbox – Semi-automatic six speed

About Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.
Bookmark the permalink.