In the land of giants
A £150m ride at New York’s busiest airport, as we tow planes around JFK
For the as-tested price of this drive, you could put 714 examples of the Ferrari 488 GTB supercar into your garage. Come to think of it, an even 700 might be best, since you’ll need leftover cash to build a much larger garage…
The vehicles we’re riding along in – and towing – have room for two, plus 210 of our closest friends, and a combined price-tag hovering around £150 million. Take that all in for a moment, we’ll wait.
Exactly how nervous would you feel if your job description meant driving the rolling equivalent of a small island nation’s GDP? Here at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, it’s simply another day at the office.
That’s because we’re presently towing a 180-foot-long Boeing in 28 tonnes of Douglas super-tug at Delta airline’s new Terminal 4. Smack in the middle of a busy weekday at one of the world’s most popular airports, driving adventures don’t get better – or bigger – than this one.
The 767-300 jet rolling behind us makes up the bulk of that eye-watering combo price, not to mention most of the previously quoted (and wonderfully spacious) seating capacity. With a wingspan over 50 metres, and stretching nearly 16 metres high to the top of the rear rudder, this plane is a workhorse of Delta’s fleet. Looking like a gigantic mechanical lobster claw in comparison to the sleek jet, our Douglas TBL 400 aircraft super-tug is a positive bargain at only £439,926.
Much like a Ferrari 488, our snug tug has room for only two onboard – and little in the way of cargo room. However, it does contain a special trick up its proverbial sleeve. With the push of a button, the driver’s seat swivels to face the opposite direction, helping the driver pull or push a jet out of any tight situation. Our tug operator for the day, Bryant Jones, demonstrated this clever bit of tech – but we'd highly recommend moving out of the way. A moderately tenderised foot helped teach us a lesson in airport safety.
Backtrack a moment though, and our behind-the-scenes tour of Delta’s ground support flight operations began from the heights of the airport’s main control tower, before heading downwards to the tarmac for a beneath-the-fuselage peek into the strange assortment of vehicles that keep flights buzzing and brimming with fuel, passengers, cargo and all those hot towels for business class.
Step back from the worry of meeting your connecting flight, and take a moment to appreciate the bewildering assortment of vehicles buzzing around each gate like giant mechanical insects. Luggage carts and trolleys go bumping along (hopefully not to the detriment of fragile souvenirs); catering trucks with scissor-lift cargo holds yawn their way upwards to a waiting crew; and lumbering fuel tankers trundle from one thirsty aircraft to the next.
These are called Ground Support Equipment, or GSE for short. Delta has nearly 2000 of them in service at JFK airport, to help handle upwards of 230 daily departures. 'About 500 [GSE] are motorised and mobile, 85 are aircraft support units (air conditioning, power and engine starts), and the rest are non-motorised support units used mainly for transporting baggage and cargo,' explains Hussein Berry, Delta’s Vice President of JFK Operations.
The most common vehicles are small baggage carts, belt loaders for luggage, and jet tugs to push planes back from their designated gate. The mechanical ballet of airplane-meets-GSE is orchestrated in a specialised room located in JFK’s central control tower. Positioned several floors beneath the Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic controllers, who guide the planes during take-off and landing, the operators in this section handle everything from refuelling and maintenance operations, to ensuring a gate-crew is ready and flight attendants are supplied with everything they’ll need. Basically, it’s the command centre that coordinates every plane’s pit-stop.
From this vantage point high above the airport, we follow our Delta handlers and descend an endless maze of stairwells and hallways to the floors below. The experience feels eerily like being a backstage airport groupie, meandering our way with the band and eventually hoping to reach centre-stage. Access card, scanned. A beep, flashing green light, and final metallic click of a door handle…and we’re there!
Sitting on the airport tarmac is the brutalist and brick-like shape of the Douglas TBL 400 series super-tug. This specialised device can handle the biggest planes in Delta’s fleet, with a lifting capacity of 45 tonnes. It goes about its business by lifting the front wheel of the aircraft completely off the ground when in operation. Simply standing alongside this bulky brute, with the piercing scream of airplane engines all around and wafts of jet fuel filling our nostrils, there is something primordial and exhilarating about being this close to the real action at an airport. Perhaps we need get out more?
The Douglas TBL 400 is known as a high-speed tow, meaning it can haul an airplane around an airport at a maximum speed of 20mph. That’s break-neck velocity, considering this tug tips the scales at 28 tonnes (or 61,729lbs for the locals). A water-cooled, 15.9-litre Deutz turbodiesel V8 sits alongside the cockpit; it’s rated at 535bhp and 738lb ft, which is delivered at 2100 rpm.
Power is fed to the front wheels via a 4-speed forward and 4-speed reverse gearbox. The electronically controlled hydraulic steering allows the driver to steer either the front or rear wheels on their own, all four wheels together, or using a 'crab' steering function that directs the front and rear wheels in opposite directions. The cabin of the tug looks like a cross-breed between school bus and light aircraft; black plastic and some serious-looking warning lights are the dominant design themes.
Being the most valuable piece of ground equipment that services the airline’s largest jets, this isn’t a device you simply jump into and hit the throttle. Training requires 16 hours of classroom instruction, followed by an exam that demands a passing score of 85% or higher. On-the-job-training includes sitting alongside an experienced tug operator, to build a level of familiarity with this Mad Max-like machine. This step is eventually followed by ten supervised tows with your teacher alongside you.
It’s not nearly as easy as it looks. Bad weather can cause those massive tires to spin helplessly in their prodigious tracks. Push or pull too hard and, believe it or not, the powerful tug could torque and damage the lightweight and surprisingly willowy frame of the airplane itself.
'Driving a unit under tow, you can feel the power at initial movement and during braking,' says Rocky Telese, Operations Service Manager for the JFK Move Team. 'Bringing a 186 tonne (412,000-pound) aircraft to a stop, especially when the weather is less than favourable, is when you really appreciate the training, experience and expertise of these team members.'
Riding along in the tug, bouncing down the runway as air traffic control comes crackling over the radio, we catch up to a queue of jets ahead. Has your commute ever meant dicing with an Air China 747 and Alitalia Airbus A330? No, probably not.
Looking backward, our Boeing 767 suddenly looks like the ultimate camper-van as we head back towards the jet’s waiting and ready gate.
Photography (and iPhone videos) by Nick Kurczewski