Deice-capades: Behind the Wheel

IMG_8208As those of you who have been regular readers know, this past winter I was given the opportunity to train with the Operations Department to learn how to manage the deice pad. To recap, deice pad management involves being on the deice pad in an operations vehicle and providing taxi instructions over the radio to position planes in the pad. We sometimes also act as a follow-me vehicle and lead planes into the pad. Once in position, the planes are handed off to their deice teams for the actual deicing.

In my last post I discussed getting on the radio for the first time and what that was like. Getting comfortable with radio communications and learning to juggle multiple planes at once takes time and practice. Unfortunately we were cursed (blessed?) with a very mild winter and I was only able to get out on the deice pad once in February and once in March.  However, on one of those occasions I got the opportunity to begin learning the final skill that I need to master: driving.  Yes, you read that correctly. This tug-loving, aviation-obsessed, stairs truck fanatic was turned loose on the ramp in a truck. The world may never be the same!

IMG_8170The lesson began casually enough when my trainer asked, “Do you want to drive?” My out-loud response was a calm, casual, “Sure.” However, as I took the keys to the SUV my internal response was, “OH MY GOD I AM GOING TO ACTUALLY DRIVE AROUND ON THE AIRFIELD WHICH IS COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS AND TOTALLY AWESOME AND IT IS TAKING EVERY OUNCE OF WILLPOWER NOT TO FREAK OUT!”

The Ops SUVs are very big and since my daily driver is a sedan, just being in such a large vehicle took a little getting used to. My trainer asked if I had driven on the airfield before. I told him I had not. He proceeded to give me some pointers, the most important of which was, “Don’t hit any airplanes!” Um… right. I think I’ve got that one!

IMG_8410He then went over some of the many markings on the ramp and what they mean. The yellow lines bordered in black are the aircraft taxi lines. He told me not to follow them because they would lead me to places I shouldn’t be. Like active runways. Yikes! He had me drive straight out towards one of the taxiways which, I must admit, was a little disconcerting. Hello – aren’t we supposed to be avoiding airplanes? However, before we actually got to the taxiway he had me stop and he pointed out markers on the pavement. He explained that this is as far as we are allowed to go. We cannot cross that line without clearance from ATC. OK – good to know!

IMG_7957I then spent time getting familiar with the drive lanes and where the deice lines are, as well as the best places to sit with good line-of-sight for monitoring activity on the pad. And did I mention we were directing planes this whole time? Well actually, my trainer was. I figured since it was my first time behind the wheel, I should focus on driving. Once the basic instruction was completed I was on my own to decide where to go and when. Sometimes I parked along the back of the pad.  Sometimes I sat on a line just in front of the t-stops to be a visual reference for pilots so they could see where to position. An added benefit of this is it gives you some really awesome photo opportunities. Which my trainer got to enjoy because I was driving. Doh! At one point we paused to take a pic of a Southwest plane, only to realize that someone on the plane was taking pictures of us!

All too soon deice was completed and it was time to park the SUV. Did I mention that it is roughly the size and shape of a tank? Thank goodness the parking spaces are big! I know what you are wondering and no, I didn’t attempt to hijack any stairs truck.  Sadly all the stairs trucks are at the other airport! But I’ve taken another step closer to being able to drive one some day. Next up? Passing the airfield driving test. Stay tuned!

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Radio Active

fullsizerender-61As you may recall, I have been training to help the Ops Department manage the deice pad on frosty mornings. This process involves driving around in an ops vehicle, giving taxi instructions on the radio, keeping a log of all the traffic through the deice pad and acting as a follow-me when needed. If that sounds like a lot to learn, it is! At this point I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the different RJs apart, I’ve memorized the call signs and ICAO codes for each airline and I can successfully manage the log. I’ve ridden along and watched the deice pad management process enough times now that I have a decent understanding of how it works. So what’s the next step? Talking on the radio.

img_7586Say What???

Yes, you read that correctly. Me. Talking on the radio. To pilots. And deice crews. And even Air Traffic Controllers. It’s unthinkable. It’s ridiculous. But, it’s absolutely true! And it’s actually kinda cool! As a recap for anyone who many not be aware, I am not a pilot. I do not work in ATC. I have zero experience talking on the radio. And if you told me a year ago that I’d be doing this I’d have laughed hysterically.

LiveATC and Radar Contact

One of the biggest things that has helped me prepare to talk on the radio has been listening to others do it. I discovered LiveATC.net many years ago and was instantly addicted. I like to listen to the feeds from LAX, ORD, ATL and CLT. These days I find myself listening to ground controllers a lot. There are many similarities between what a ground controller does, and what we do when we manage the deice pad – we clear pilots to push back, give taxi instructions and hand them off to other frequencies. img_7523

Another wonderful resource has been ATCCommunication.com and, more specifically, the Radar Contact podcast. I’ve been listening to the show for awhile now – it is very informative and I’ve learned a lot. When I realized that it was time for me to start talking on the radio, I was pretty darn nervous about it. What if I screw up? What if I say something wrong? Then I went back and listened to the episode “Making Mistakes on the Aircraft Radio.” Although the focus is on pilots, it was a good reminder for me as well. I don’t have to be perfect on the radio. I just need to be as clear as I can and not beat myself up if I make mistakes. img_7594

So Far, So Good

I haven’t done a whole lot of radio work yet, but what I’ve done so far has gone OK. The airplanes got into and out of the deice pad successfully and everyone seemed to understand me. When I get nervous I tend to talk quickly, so I try to force myself to speak slowly and carefully. I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask questions if I don’t understand or if I miss a piece of information I need – like what gate the plane is pushing back from. I promise I’m being good and sticking to standard phraseology. I won’t lie though, there are some things I wish I could say…

I CAN say: “Southwest 123, push back at your discretion, give us a call when you are ready to taxi.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey Southwest, just how fast do you taxi anyway?”

I CAN say: “American 456, taxi eastbound via the ramp.”

I CAN’T say: “Please don’t retire the maddog! Please! Please! Please!”

I CAN say: “Delta 789, contact Ground on 121.9 and let them know you’re on the north side of the pad, ready to depart.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey – can I borrow your stairs truck?”

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You never know what interesting things you might find sitting around the office

DeIce Age

img_6539It’s not exactly a secret that I love airplanes and I’m fascinated with airport operations, so when I was offered the chance to help out with deicing this winter you can probably imagine my reaction. “Wait… I get to be on the airfield, in a Follow Me truck, surrounded by airplanes and deicing equipment? Oh. Heck. YES!”

Every airport handles deicing differently. At my airport the airlines are responsible for their own deicing. However, Airport Operations is responsible for the flow of traffic into and out of the deicing area. Ops was looking for a couple extra people to help out and I’m told that they thought of me because I know a bit about airplanes. But honestly, who else are they going to find who is not only willing to be at work at a ridiculously early hour but is actually excited about it?

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“Did someone call the Iceman?” “No, they called DEICE, man!”

For now I’m just riding along while I train – and there’s A LOT to learn. Here’s how it works: Planes call Ops (deice control) when they are ready to taxi and we tell them which deicing pad to go to and how to get there. In some cases (especially if the pilot is new or unfamiliar with the airport) we’ll act as a Follow Me vehicle and either lead them into the deice pad, or park just ahead of where we want them to go so they can see where they need to be. Once in position they contact their own deice team to get sprayed down.  When deicing is complete they call us back and we pass them along to ground control for taxi instructions.

When planes push one at a time, it isn’t too bad. During the morning rush, however, there are many planes pushing at the same time, all of whom need to be deiced. If that weren’t enough, we also have to handle planes that are being moved from parking spots on the apron through the deice area on their way to various gates. Plus we have to watch out for planes at the gates that border the deice pads, who often push back with no notice. Oh, and did I mention we have to mentally juggle all these pieces while driving around, talking on the radio and keeping a log of every plane? It’s tetris on steroids with airplanes! It’s intense! And its also ridiculously awesome.

img_6548For the record, riding in a Follow Me truck is every bit as cool as I thought it would be. There’s nothing quite like looking out the back window and seeing the nose of a 737 RIGHT THERE. And in case you are wondering, deice trucks are just as fun to watch up close as they are from a distance. The airfield is especially lovely in the early morning. I never get tired of seeing airplanes silhouetted by the rising sun.

Plus at long last I’ve found out where my fellow aviation fans have been hiding – in Ops! I love spending time with coworkers who know what FOD is, who refer to the MD-80 as “the maddog” and who will pause to stare at the Boeing 757 at it takes off because hello – its a Boeing 757! For once I can be my geeky self and no one minds.

img_6527Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might be a bit concerned about my ability to concentrate in the face of so much avgeek awesomeness. Fear not! I’m honored to have been given this opportunity and I’m going to try to learn as much as I can so I’m able to help out as much as possible. Besides, even though it can be very busy, there are also quiet moments where I’m free to geek out over all the cool stuff going on around me.

So what’s next? Well I’ve got to learn the call signs and ICAO codes for all the airlines at my airport. And I need to learn which regional airlines fly for which major airlines. And I need to get better at telling all those pesky RJs apart. And… well, you get the idea. For now my goal is to get good enough to be able to keep the log and be a second set of eyes, especially during snow events when things really get intense. Will I ever get good enough to go driving around by myself?  We’ll just have to wait and see. Oh, and in case you are wondering, the Follow Me truck is a regular SUV. But don’t worry – I’m already working on a list of reasons why a stairs truck would be vastly superior.

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