Gettin’ Hitched

Gettin’ Hitched

Left Brain = logic, language, math.  Right Brain = art, music, intuition, love.
How to engage both when towing an airplane.

Saying ‘I Do’ to DIY aircraft towing.

What makes an airplane fly? Airspeed and money, right? Regulations, physicals, training, financing, maintenance, insurance, fuel, cleaning and towing can merely be a means to our end – that of achieving flight. But the airspeed and money cliché along with our clinical persona may deprive us of something more. What if we allow the right side of our brain to have a seat in the towing vehicle before we slide into the left seat of the airplane? For those that fall into the “someone else does that for me” category, consider this my Valentine proposal to say ‘I do’ to do-it-yourself towing. 

How Do I Tow Thee

How do I tow thee, let me count the ways:

I tow thee to the depth and breadth my tug may reach,
after halting for the night; at the end of soaring,
after an inspiring flight.

I tow thee with smoothness, and with gentle might;
by sun or moonlight. Towing thee with care,
yon painted lines show me where.

I tow thee fearful of hangar rash; which I must not commit.
Yet I tow thee merrily; with grand smiles and grins – to which I admit.
I tow thee with the breath and tears of all my life.

And, if God does so allow to wit: promise to tow thee lovingly I do,
with each towing experience, I humbly accrue.

I tow thee tenderly, with childhood dreams that I keep,
gliding smoothly on the ramp, with admiration, love and a Jeep.

An Elevated Fraternity
Readers have called this column “quirky and eccentric yet insightfully eclectic.” Those are atypically esoteric words to come from left-brain aviators. But T &T readers rise from a philosophically elevated fraternity of owner-operators. We can problem solve and make decisions as we operate an airplane, practice, firm or corporation with the left side of our brain, and then side-step to the parallel, right side with equal intensity as we embrace the sensory-symphonies of love, life, our livelihood and flying. When writing for such a fraternity, especially about a topic as potentially utilitarian and boring as towing an airplane, you’d best do it in a unique, perhaps quirky fashion; something to engage both sides of the brain. Well, a story about aircraft towing that begins with an emotionally laden anthropomorphic sonnet? That’s a quirky, eccentric and insightfully eclectic approach to towing – and certainly unique. After all, we’re only moving an airplane from place to place. How difficult can it be and what else is there to know? What else indeed grasshopper. There are challenges and threats that our left brain must negotiate if we are to indulge our right brain’s passionate perspective on the potentially problematic procedure.   

Neither Snow nor Rain 
The Duke is the first aircraft I’ve owned that could not be moved in and out of a hangar manually by one person. Initially, I had an FBO accomplish the towing. After moving from Arizona to Michigan, I needed a way to tow the Duke by myself in an environment where tow-it-yourself inhibitors are plentiful. But neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor upslope into the hangar should stop me from the swift completion of the appointed tow. Scott Johnson is a local pilot in our Winter Wonderland of slipperiness and owns both an award-winning C-180 and a welding shop. And after 20-plus years, he has plenty of experience with creative metalworking. Scott manufactured an extra-long tow bar (so that I could see the towing limits on the nose strut—more on this in a bit) to use with a trailer hitch that was welded to the front frame of my 4WD Ford Explorer. When I recently replaced the Ford with a Jeep, its bumper, grill and the shielded, rock-crawling underside didn’t facilitate the same type of trailer hitch adaptation. There are, however, two red towing hooks that presented an opportunity for Scott’s creativity. This time he manufactured an adapter to fit over the Jeep’s hooks that included a trailer hitch ball. Your own towing setup may necessitate similar creativity, but whatever method you devise, the mechanical and procedural considerations for safe DIY towing will be similar.  

Due to the threat of hangar rash, liability and (lack of) driver ability, most shared, FBO and community hangars require that only those trained in the nuances of towing conduct the maneuver. Moving the plane ourselves is therefore predicated on us having our own hangar, a means of towing and possessing trailering skills. In addition to having the skill to tow both forward and backward, our tow-vehicle must have the power, torque, traction and tow bar attachments to manage the task. Pilots tow their aircraft using a wide variety of machinery including tugs large and small, electric and gas; they use cars, trucks, farm tractors, four-wheelers and riding lawn mowers. Initially, I tried several types of walk-along towing machines and a riding mower, but traction was inadequate for the snowy incline into the hangar. I settled on the Explorer and now a Jeep. Towing a single, a cabin-class twin, Citation, GV and a 787 all require a different tug, attachments and a different skill set. The larger our aerospace vehicle, the more difficult these personal and equipment parameters are to achieve.   

A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations
– Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), 1973

While not as perilous as tugging (pun intended) on Superman’s cape or challenging Dirty Harry, towing can be a hazardous operation, causing damage to the aircraft and injury to personnel. Once at my carrier, and unbeknownst to the Captain and crew, the NLG spray shield was damaged during push-back from the gate. This resulted in the nose gear failing to extend on landing. Other common towing errors include attempting to move the aircraft with its brakes set or chocks installed, pushing or pulling the aircraft into another object or damage due to aggressive maneuvering or exceeding angular towing limits. Personal injuries can occur when attaching and detaching towing equipment and to others when they intrude between the tow vehicle and the airplane. We may also cause damage or injuries if the tow bar becomes disconnected during movement. Here is a left-brain checklist in order to help us avoid some costly mistakes:    

Aircraft equipped with a tricycle landing gear are generally towed by attaching a model-specific tow bar to the axle of the nose wheel, to designated tow pins, or by lifting the entire nose wheel assembly. Most tow pins are designed to “shear” before other, more critical, aircraft components – this means the pins are fragile by design. 

 Internal or external flight control locks should be used while the aircraft is parked – but use caution when towing. Some control locks for the rudder system will inhibit towing and cause damage to aircraft springs, cables or linkages if not removed prior to towing.

Before towing, confirm the aircraft parking brake is released, chocks and tie-downs are removed and the area is clear of obstacles – including the hangar door. To verify the parking brake is off, I push on a wingtip and verify that a MLG tire rotates a smidgeon. Common obstacles include trash cans, torpedo heaters, step-stools, luggage and luggage carts. 

Chocks should be available in case the tug and aircraft become separated from each other. I’ve had three of these free-wheeling events at the airline but none in GA.

Contact ground or advise other aircraft on the CTAF if entering movement areas and tow along painted taxi lines when able.

Most GA aircraft do not have a full swivel mode on the NLG locking scissors. Instead, we have markings to designate maximum towing angles (typically marked in red on the nose strut). It is critical to remain within these limits. If you reach the left or right limit, you should stop, disconnect the towing vehicle and maneuver the tow bar and vehicle to remain within limits, then reattach the tow bar and resume the tow. 

No one should be permitted to walk or ride between the nose wheel of an aircraft and the towing vehicle, nor ride on the outside of the airplane or the towing vehicle. 

I’ve been towing GA airplanes and Air Force fighters for 45 years, and I can usually push the Duke to within my self-imposed ¾-inch parking spot tolerance in the hangar – albeit not always on the first attempt. While acknowledging the challenges of towing, or reading poetry about towing, I advocate self-towing for the same reason I have suggested that we all get more hands-on with aircraft maintenance (see “Zen and Aircraft Maintenance,” T &T July 2015). Because becoming more touchy-feely with our maintenance and towing can provide knowledge, which leads to understanding, skill, appreciation and gratitude. 

Accept the Challenge  

The functional elegance of towing is often lost on us pilots, overshadowed by the left-brain efficiency, ease and convenience of a professionally prepositioned aircraft. While towing your own airplane will take some skill, there’s no need to snatch a pebble from your sensei’s hand – just get some dual with your own tug, tow bar and airplane before you go solo. And if you will accept the challenge of towing, I will abandon the challenge of poetry. 

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