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Beautiful Machines

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I was casually surfing, I mean researching on the internet today, when I stumbled upon this photo in a site header (linking instead of pasting since it’s in Flash).  As is wont to happen to me I was immediately taken back to when I used to perform that task, marshalling in aircraft to their parking position.

I never actually handled an IL76 unfortunately (I did climb into one undergoing repairs in Libya though).  The awesomest aircraft I had to guide to a stop was one like this:

Antonov AN12 / Copyright Angara at Airliners.net

It may not look like much – old, what with the props and all.  But it was noisy, even through the ear defenders. And big. And coming towards me.  I sometimes used to have perverse thoughts on the lines of: what if the pilot didn’t see me? What if one of engines shot off it’s mounting and came towards me?

A turboprop is slow to accelerate, so I used to play these mind games that if something happened, I could duck out of the way, or between the landing gear. Or something.  It was a completely different story with one of these beauties, the private jets:

Bombardier Global Express / Copyright Luc Van Belleghem at Airliners.net

The high pitched whine of the turbine engines gives these aircraft a restless air.  They were built for speed, not for crawling around.  I felt as if the engineering feat was not putting them in the air, but keeping them in check, restrained and obeying the pilot’s commands on the ground.  Which is why, when marshalling one in, I felt like I had the barrel of a (quite large) cannon being slowly pointed towards me, with a shell that was crying and begging to be fired.

I was not scared, I would not have done the job otherwise.  Those thoughts were merely fleeting products of my imagination, which I would shrug off, and get back to there and then.

It was a job I performed with mixed emotions – on one hand I absolutely loved the idea of being close to these high tech machines, climbing on board $50 million VIP aircraft, or being involved in some tricky cargo loading operation.  On the other hand there were the odd timings, the associated running around and the whatever-the-weather requirement.  It could get quite cold in Malta when raining on a February pre-dawn morning.  The office job wouldn’t look so drab then.

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This is what I do

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Upon exchanging introductions with new acquaintances I get invariably asked “So what do you do?” And as I start to explain I often see the eyes of my poor listener glaze over with incomprehension, culminating in a quick nod so I stop the torture.  It is usually also noisy with surrounding conversation, which does not help either.  I will hereby set forth to correct that and record once and for all how I earn my daily bread.

 I work with an aviation services (aka flight support) provider.  It is for the most part a B2B setup, where our clients are the operators of different types of aircraft – be they smaller private jets, larger cargo aircraft, ambulance flights or regular passenger airliners.  These are usually not the ones operating your run of the mill scheduled flights, but rather unplanned flights and sometimes very short notice.

We assist various aircraft, from the smallest Learjet (image via Wikipedia commons)

To the largest cargo aircraft (image via Wikipedia commons)

There are three main areas of services – permits, ground arrangements and flight planning.  At their most basic:

–          Most countries require permits to be issued before an aircraft can fly over them, and these are conveniently called overflight permits.  There are varying degrees of complexity and documents requirements in order to obtain them, differing wildly by country / region.

–          Similarly most airports require a permit in order to land – landing permits (smart huh?). These are sometimes also known as PPR’s – prior permission required.  Unrelated side note: aviation is littered with acronyms, in my opinion evidencing the influence of the US on the industry – around 80% of all general aviation (i.e. non-scheduled) flights happen in the US alone.

–          After an aircraft lands at its destination the pilot cannot just park and leave, there must be services arranged – passengers have to be taken to the terminal and cleared through customs, the aircraft has to be serviced, catering needs to be prepared, etc…  In general this is called aircraft handling and there are usually two main issues in setting it up: whether the agent / airport has the necessary equipment, and how the services have to be paid.  Most operators nowadays do not fill up their aircraft with cash, rather opting to have credit arrangements in place. We pay for the services on the operator’s behalf so they don’t have to worry about it.  Of course this requires having prior arrangements, you cannot just call up a new agent and tell him “don’t worry, I’ll pay you later…”

–          Flight planning is a rather complex subject, but very briefly it covers how an aircraft will get from departure to destination airports, and whether it can actually make it.  The considerations on this latter are: how much fuel it can carry, how many passengers / cargo it needs to carry, and the aircraft performance – how fast it flies and at what rate it burns fuel.  Previously these calculations used to be done manually.  Nowadays we are spared the chore with systems that work it out in seconds.  The route is (almost) never a straight line.  The skies are criss-crossed with airways – roads that can be used by aircraft.  On international flights pilots cannot just fly where they want, so there are rules to ensure safe usage by the increasing volume of flights.

 We also perform charter brokering, which consists of finding suitable aircraft for other parties, the types of which can vary as mentioned above (business jets, cargo, ambulance, etc).  We do not operate our own aircraft, rather contact the operators directly and charter each flight as they occur.

 This should put an end once and for all to the uneasy looks and confused expressions.  When next asked what my job is I’ll probably email the permalink to this post.  I might even think of having the link printed on business cards for offline use.