The Ground Handling Blog

Mototok's blog for Hangar Professionals

Written by Mototok on February 8, 2018 // 4:13 PM

Pushback tugs: types, differences, and innovations


If your business involves aircraft, chances are likely that you move aircraft. Airlines conduct pushbacks around the clock, MROs rotate aircraft into and out of hangars like clockwork, and military units are abuzz with constant movement of aircraft, often under critically short timeframes. All of the operations must be equipped with pushback aircraft tugs which are utterly and completely reliable.

What exactly is a pushback tug, and how is it different?

Aircraft tugs are not a one-size-fits-all affair. Not every operation uses an aircraft tug exclusively for pushbacks, so aircraft tugs are built accordingly. A true pushback tug aims to allow the operator to have excellent visibility of the attaching mechanism between airplane and tug, traditionally a tow bar which attaches to the airplane’s nose landing gear, and to a pintle on the tug on the opposite end. While still widely used the world over, this method is outdated and poses concerns to the operator:

As markets dictate advances in technology, pushback tug operators needed something faster and more user friendly than traditional tractor tugs. Out of this need came the first towbarless tugs and tractors, which are either diesel or electric. These units use a huge hydraulic cradle between the forward wheels which are usually mounted on a booms on each side of the vehicle. The driver moves into position and the cradle attaches to the tires. The cradle then lifts hydraulically, placing all of the forward weight of the airplane onto the tug.

Towbarless pushback tugs are superior in pushback operations to a traditional tractor tug because they are much faster to attach and disconnect, and they allow much greater mobility by getting rid of the awkward tow bar. However, the driver is seated facing directly towards the aircraft at all times, so these types of pushback tugs are only effective in pushback operations. Tractor tugs are much better suited to tow the aircraft for any distance beyond pushing out of the gate area.

Towbarless pushback tugs are only the first step

There are two major areas of traditional pushback tugs which are still lacking. First, they are still a complicated machine which takes considerable practice to master. Second, they still require exactly as many members for a tow or pushback operation as the tractor tug does. The impetus for revolutionizing aircraft ground movements must be twofold:

  1. A reduction in manpower.
  2. A direct increase in safety.

Manned towbarless tugs do not offer any reduction in manpower because the driver will always remain strictly the driver and cannot mobilize anywhere else in the operation. Observers will still be required during operations.

Towbarless tugs absolutely do offer a direct increase in safety. The driver is able to conduct the entire operation without any additional personnel aiding in the operation. Attaching tow bars is an enormously hazardous task due to the task of physically attaching the tow bar to the tractor once it has been attached to the aircraft. There is just no way to avoid this; it cannot be automated. As long as a tow bar is used, a person will have to stand in place to attach it, and the first few times you do it are absolutely nerve wracking.

What do pushback operations of the future look like?

Pushback operations of the future are going to be completely autonomous by use of Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV). These machines are able to position themselves precisely every single time, pushback at a perfectly regulated pace, and return to docking autonomously.

Understanding that most aircraft operators are not ready for this automation during ground operations just yet, the more immediate future holds remotely operated pushback tugs as the prime mover of aircraft on the ground. Remotely operated pushback tugs offer advantages that manned units cannot compare to. Their safety measures are unrivaled, simplicity is unparalleled, and savings in manpower is tremendous.

Safety is the number one consideration of all ground operations airside. Getting people home safely is always the top priority. A remotely operated tug allows for a single operator rather than a coordinated team, which removes several essential personnel from harm's way. The sole operator is still able to have considerable standoff distance from the pushback tug and aircraft during the entire operation, never being required to be in close proximity to the connected surfaces, landing gear, or engines.

Remote pushback tugs are very simple to operate, only requiring an afternoon’s worth of training to be ready for operation. Given their flat profile, the operator has 100% visibility over the entire operation which adds confidence to the end user and creates a tremendous safety margin. Visibility is so important during a pushback because airside operations are so fast paced. Blind spots are a real killer on busy airport aprons.

The economic benefits of a quality pushback tug

Airplane tugs, particularly pushback-specific styles, are very expensive. They are built to safely move airplanes sometimes weighing nearly 200 tons, so they must be built heavy and durably. But buying the right pushback tug promotes economic benefits in itself, or at least certainly buying the wrong one will have negative economic impact!

Ground support equipment (GSE) is best known as the unknown; it is working out for the best when nobody notices it at all. The time when GSE is being noticed is usually when it has failed in some way, or is costing an exorbitant amount in upkeep and servicing, or just generally unreliable.

Green, electric tugs are the best option for pushback operations. They have a tremendous low center of gravity and are very heavy from the battery packs, which is a huge advantage, and pose no issues to the operator in cold climates. Diesel units are notoriously hard to start in cold climates which can pose a huge problem to operations.

The ability to reduce a team from four or five members to one is the factor which will provide the most immediate return on investment (ROI). At a flat rate of $15.00 per hour per person, assume that crews spend 12 hours pushing back airliners at a hub airport. By reducing four people, that is an economic upturn of $720 every single day, which then translates to nearly $263,000 annually! That is just in manpower cost alone. It is safe to say that one year’s use of a remotely operated pushback tug would pay for itself entirely, and every year thereafter is pure profit.

Other factors to consider

There is no dispute that pushback operations are best done by a dedicated pushback unit, and even more efficiently conducted with a remotely controlled tug. That does not make this the ideal application for all aircraft movements, though.

The reason why tractor aircraft tugs persevere over the decades is their ability to perform all types of airplane ground movements reasonably well, and one type of movement exceptionally well. They are honestly not well suited for constant pushback operations for reasons previously discussed, but they are capable of doing it. Tractor tugs are not particularly good at maneuvering in confined spaces like hangars, but they can do it if necessary. Some operations are willing to sacrifice efficiency for overall cost reduction of a unit which can perform a variety of different functions.

The one area which pushback tugs cannot compete with a tractor tug towing in transit and for extended distances. Tractor tugs are omnidirectional with pintle hitches at both ends, so once the aircraft is pushed out of the hangar or gate, the tractor turns around and pulls in a forward direction. Many tractor tugs have cabs which provide an extra measure of safety and protection from the elements. Also, cabs allow operators to monitor radio traffic much more accurately. For this reason, tractor tugs persist.

Conclusion to pushback tugs

Aircraft tugs have come a long way from their roots as converted farm tractors and work trucks. They are technologically advanced machines which are tailored to the very specific purpose of safely moving aircraft on the ground. They are available as tractor style, omnidirectional units, manned pushback style which contain and raise the nose landing gear of the aircraft, and now as remotely operated electric units. Choosing the right unit versus an inferior type can be all the difference between making block times and delaying flights, or pushing an aircraft out of MRO on schedule. Good GSE is never noticed but inferior GSE costs significantly in terms of time and money. Choosing a remotely operated aircraft tug is one of the best investments that you can make towards your airside ground movement operations.

You want to know how much ROI you can get on a new pushback tug? Get in touch with our experts and find out how quickly you can start to profit!

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