Flights & Fancy

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - JIM GRIF­FITH

Slip­pery when frozen

IN FE­BRU­ARY 1958, the T-33 train­ing at Royal Cana­dian Air Force sta­tion Gimli, al­ready far be­hind sched­ule, was thrown into chaos. South­ern Man­i­toba, where Gimli was lo­cated, was hit by an ex­tended shot of freez­ing rain fol­lowed by a flash freeze; as far as the weather fore­cast­ers could see, there was no re­lief. Like the rest of Course 5701, I’d just fin­ished ground school and per­fected my drills in the static trainer, and this lat­est slap in the face from Mother Na­ture was keep­ing me from ful­fill­ing my hopes and dreams of fi­nally fly­ing a jet.

Clear­ing the ice from taxi­ways and run­ways weighed heav­ily on the minds of the few of­fi­cers who had re­mained rea­son­ably sober dur­ing the ex­tended sta­tion stand-down.

One early af­ter­noon when we were skulk­ing around in the smoky Flight Cadets’ mess where, un­like the of­fi­cers, we were de­nied al­co­hol un­til af­ter sup­per, an of­fi­cer bounded in and bel­lowed: “Right—i need three vol­un­teers!”

We three crowded onto the lad­der of a T-33 while the in­struc­tor who plucked us from the Flight Cadet’s mess sat in the cock­pit, de­scrib­ing and mim­ing what we were go­ing to do. I couldn’t be­lieve it. Ahead of my class­mates, I was ac­tu­ally go­ing to start up and run the en­gine of a jet. The idea was to have a trac­tor tow a T-33 out onto the icy paved sur­faces of the air­port, fol­lowed by a bull­dozer. Co­or­di­nat­ing with only hand sig­nals, I would hold the T-bird’s brakes full on, and the bull­dozer would po­si­tion it­self strate­gi­cally be­hind the jet’s tailpipe. At the ar­ranged sig­nal, I would ad­vance power to 50 per­cent, and the boil­ing-hot jet blast would de­flect down off the bull­dozer blade to­ward the pave­ment and voilà— melt the ice. If more heat was needed, the trac­tor driver would wave his hand over his head for ei­ther more or less power.

I was the guinea pig to test the pro­ce­dure. If it worked, my two class­mates would join me in an ech­e­lon left for­ma­tion made up of three trac­tors tow­ing three T-33s, trailed by three bull­doz­ers, to creep slowly down one of the run­ways, clear­ing it of ice.

It worked well for the first few tries. Co­or­di­nat­ing all the hand sig­nals was a bit con­fus­ing but they worked, and we de-iced a taxi­way with­out in­ci­dent. Now for the main event: the run­way.

The trac­tor driver in front gave the sig­nal that he’d set the trac­tor brake. I replied by giv­ing the sig­nal that the T-bird’s brakes were set, and since I couldn’t see be­hind, I guessed the bull­dozer guy was do­ing what he was sup­posed to be do­ing. I ad­vanced the power slowly, and ev­ery­thing was go­ing well.

But the laws of physics would not be de­nied: The roar­ing Rolls-royce Nene en­gine was more than enough to over­come the locked brakes and the com­bined weight of the trac­tor, air­craft, and tow bar, and the ice, un­sur­pris­ingly, was slip­pery. There may have been a pos­si­ble dither­ing of hand sig­nals be­tween the tug driver and me. Sud­denly I could see the trac­tor slid­ing side­ways from dead ahead to the left. What the heck was the driver do­ing? The trac­tor seemed to move faster and faster. Then the driver seemed to be vi­o­lently try­ing to slash his own throat. Fi­nally it dawned on me. Oh I see, I thought, he wants me to

shut down. I sheep­ishly did. The only in­juries were a slightly dam­aged nose gear, a bent tow bar, and my badly bruised ego. It could have been worse. Both the trac­tor and the bull­dozer driver were spared the ha­rangu­ing I got from the sta­tion com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, but even up to my last flight, when years later I parked a 747-400 at Gate 104 at Toronto’s Pearson In­ter­na­tional Air­port, I al­ways had a twinge of anx­i­ety at the start of ev­ery push-back.

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