Much of the focus of aircraft tug technology has gone to technology and units geared primarily toward private jets, turboprops, and general aviation, and it makes perfect sense.
It is far easier to engineer and produce the equipment necessary for aircraft in the sub-35,000lb weight range. And there is certainly demand for this size range of equipment, with tens of thousands of private jets and turboprops in use worldwide. But it essentially leaves the airliners out in the cold, relying on outdated technology to do a job that is also overlooked mainly in terms of importance and probably frequency. However, on a busy day at a hub airport, the airplane tug gets as much use as any other piece of GSE, maybe even more than most. We will look at how Mototok is tackling this issue and creating fantastic solutions for the heavies out there.
What are Heavy Jet Operators Currently Using?
Heavy jet operators are generally commercial air and freight carriers and large charter operators who operate federal contracts. These are the large single-aisle jets (Boeing 737-900, Boeing 757, Airbus 321), which are becoming mainstays of the international travel community, with many routes now using them to fly across the Atlantic between Hawaii and the continental U.S. The maximum gross weights of these jets vary widely, but they are generally in the ballpark of about 90-95 tons.
As heavy as this does seem, the real heavyweights of the jet world are the widebody jets in service today. These are the Boeing 747, 767, 777, and 787, and the Airbus A300, A330, A340, A350, and of course, the greatest heavyweight of them all, the A380. These are the heavy jets that weigh in well over 100-200 tons, easy.
Heavy jet aircraft tugs have traditionally been a niche market that uses a very standard blueprint: diesel engine, extremely low gear ratio, and lots of weight. “Modern” aircraft tugs are still basically the same as they were two or three decades ago; the only real difference is that diesel engines themselves are cleaner operating and produce higher torque output now than before. But beyond the powerplant, they are still basically the exact vehicle as you would have found on the ramps in the 1980s. This is crazy when you look at how radically different the latest generation of jets are from the jets of that era; aerospace technology has evolved considerably in this time frame while ground support equipment technology has remained largely static.
The standard blueprint is copied among a select few manufacturers that have held their stake in this community for a very long time. There is not anything inherently wrong with the concept of a heavy diesel tug using a towbar for connection between the tug and airplane; it has worked well millions of times. But some real drawbacks have led us at Mototok to rewrite the blueprint and do things better. What are these?
- Personnel constraints: a standard aircraft tug requires at least three crew members, plus more if there are obstacles (fixed or mobile fences, walls, buildings, parked aircraft, other GSE items), or moving in, out, and around hangars for wing- and tail-walking functions.
- Advanced skillset: a towbar adds a pivot point to the movement of the aircraft. This is not a big deal when pulling the aircraft as it follows the turning contours on the tug, but it makes learning to push the aircraft backward a considerable chore.
- Higher risk: the towbar that attaches the aircraft to the tug is a dangerous item. It has multiple pinch points (the pintle hitch, the locking pins on the landing gear). Also, the pins are a weak point on this method, and if they shear, the aircraft is no longer attached to the tug.
- Diesel tugs have proven to be reliable, but they are notorious polluters regarding air quality and noise pollution. The ramp is a tough enough place to work already; the noxious fumes just sitting there from constant idling is atrocious, and the noise pollution adds to fatigue.
What Do Heavies Need?
Heavy jets, as the name implies, are relatively heavy. For example, the Boeing 767-400ER has a maximum takeoff weight of a little over 200 tons. A gigantic jet indeed. The Airbus A330-300 is even more significant, tipping the scales around the 250-ton mark.
It takes a lot of low-end torque to move these jets around on the ground, and there have not been many alternatives of practical value for the ground movement of these heavy wide-bodied jets.
Heavy, wide-body jets need a tug that can reliably handle weight in the range of 250 tons, which our Space 250 does with ease.
How is the Ground Movement of Heavies Different from Private Jets?
Ground movement of heavy jets is considerably different than that of the private jet community, not in theory or practice but the demands of commercial carriers vice private jets. Commercial airliners, whether they be freight haulers or passenger-carrying, are seldom static. They do not get parked in hangars unless they are in maintenance docks for inspection and repair.
Private jets are almost universally kept in hangars, and it is to the great benefit of the owner/operator to park as many aircraft as possible in a hangar, which requires great flexibility and precision of movement.
What Are the Needs of the Heavy Aircraft Community?
Airliners need a reliable unit that is simple and quick to operate, and the Spacer 250 is just what they are looking for. They need a tug that will withstand years of rigorous use in harsh conditions, being run around the clock. They also need the lowest footprint possible on staff, especially in the wake of the last 20 months. It has never been more pressing than in the wake of a pandemic and a recovery which has seen alarming staffing shortages across the board in nearly all industries, of which airports and airlines are not immune.
Any opportunity your operation has to reduce your staffing requirements will ease a significant burden on your overall staffing demands. For example, our Space 250 tug is designed to be operated by a single individual. In addition, our Spacer 250 is an intelligent unit in that it uses a safe and straightforward 1-click loading system in which the operator only needs to put it near the nose landing gear, and the tug does the rest.
Benefits of Investing in the Spacer 250
The Spacer 250 is an investment in the future of your operation. What you can guarantee by staying wedded to a diesel tug is exactly what you have gotten. It may be reliable, but it will never offer any more than what it already does. The Spacer 250 allows you to focus your resources on other areas of your operation.
How do you get the fastest return on investment with a Spacer 250 in your operation? First and foremost is the reduction in the most costly part of your operation: manpower. There is no way around it; workforce costs more than anything else. But you can now send these resources elsewhere because we designed our units to be operated by one person. If your operation conducts an average of ten hours per day of pushbacks, you can multiply that by at least three for a standard aircraft tug, so a minimum of thirty person-hours. But the Spacer 250 provides one manhour worked per hour of operation, and that is incredible.
Because we have designed our tugs from the ground up to capture the nose landing gear tires and elevate them off of the ground, there is no chance of a towbar breakaway event with our configuration. Additionally, there are NO pinch points for the operator, thanks to our 1-click loading system, whereas there is always a risk of pinching when attaching the towbar to both the jet and the tug.
Our optional features are unmatched in the industry. For one, we offer enhanced oversteering protection by using weighing cells or steering torque measurement and countersteering (i-NPS). This means that you no longer need to worry about accidentally oversteering and substantially damaging your aircraft.
For those heavy loads and conditions when you want the added security of more weight on the tug, we offer a towing adaptor for coupling more than one unit. Our Spacer tugs can be used with a remote control or a hardwired control cable if you prefer that, and if you have a precisely planned route that these will be commonly used on, they can be used as an automated guided vehicle (AGV).
For the ultimate security of operation, we can equip your Spacer tugs with an RFID user ID Access and Administration System so you can ensure that only trained and authorized individuals have access to your equipment.
Your operation is likely overdue for an update on your airplane tug for your heavy jet fleet. They do go largely unnoticed because of the menial work that they perform. But when you look a little closer beneath the surface, you can find tremendous savings in updating your fleet. Ground movements are also a critical movement with genuine safety considerations. Updating your fleet to our Spacer series of tugs is the safest way to get the fastest return on investment and continue providing reliable, user-friendly, and quiet aircraft movements for your heavy jets year after year. Get in touch with our friendly staff, and we will set you up with a consultation today!