J.J. Hechtl, Zonnie
Fritsche, and Bob Hilleary are three of the talented "West
Ramp Rats" volunteers who coordinate aircraft movement on
August 1, 2009 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin -
For the AeroShell Square volunteers (a.k.a.
West Ramp Rats, as they affectionately call each other), it's been one of
the hardest years, but one of the most rewarding.
Bob Hilleary is one of five AeroShell
Square veterans and who is charged with coordinating the movement of
multi-million dollar aircraft on limited ramp space during AirVenture. On
Friday, July 31, Hilleary, along with some 60 volunteers, had much to do.
"Today we'll be unstacking seven
corporate jets like a puzzle, then pulling WhiteKnight2 out for its
showcase flight, then move any other aircraft, push everything (and most
everyone) behind the 150 foot clearance marker, and then swing the A380
out," Hilleary said.
Sound daunting? Not according to Hilleary.
"It's a piece of cake," he smiles
That's hard to believe, but AeroShell
Square volunteers are hand-picked professionals from throughout the
aviation industry. Planning begins months in advance, which leads to a
"well orchestrated ballet of aircraft movements," as Hilleary
calls it. Ballet dancers include the air show air boss, tower controllers,
aircraft marshallers, flightline safety personnel, and of course, each
other. Their radios are rarely quiet.
Still, AirVenture 2009 did present some
unique challenges for the AeroShell Square volunteers. The gigantic Airbus
A380 played a part in that, as you might expect, but size isn't the only
factor, says Jeff Davis, AeroShell Square ramp coordinator. "The
ground equipment footprint that comes with it is large, including several
truckloads of generators, air conditioning units, and even a backup
tug," says Davis. All this equipment must be stored nearby, fueled,
and ready to put into service-don't want to run out of gas on the runway.
Equipment maintenance falls under their long list of responsibilities,
along with set-up of exhibitor's aircraft, everything from the Honda Jet
to light-sport aircraft.
Then, there's the schedule that changes
hourly. "Timelines are everything in our world," says Davis, but
unexpected aircraft sometimes drop in, so West Ramp volunteers accommodate
last minute requests to find room. Overflow military aircraft are parked
at Runway 13-31, where Mike Millard, another of the five AeroShell Square
co-chairs, coordinates activities.
Hechtl says the challenges they face each
year develop teambuilding skills, by working with each other, taking all
of the pieces of the airplane puzzle and fitting them together. That's
what they do best. They work 14-16 hour days to keep things running
smoothly, and they've learned to roll with the changes. They don't like to
take more than an hours' break during the day. "We need to stay
engaged, stay connected," Davis says. "It's hard to walk away,
come back, and be able to stay on top of things and be able to contribute,
because of all the changes."
Is it intimidating to move one-of-a-kind
aircraft, such as WhiteKnight2, through a crowd of spectators? Mike
Skorczewski, who towed WhiteKnight2 from AeroShell Square to the north end
of Runway 18/36, explains it this way.
"I've worked on $32 million F-16s for
28 years. When you tow airplanes every day, the principle is the same;
it's just different shapes." Retired from the Wisconsin Air National
Guard, "Skor" as his friends call him, says he's developed a
sixth sense. "If it doesn't feel right, you stop." It must work;
he hasn't hit anything in his decades of service.
Is it difficult to maneuver these unusually
large aircraft? You might think so, but not according to J.J. Hechtl, of
Davis, California. "It's just a big Cessna 172," he says of the
Airbus A380. A 737 captain, Hechtl elaborates, "The dynamics of how
the aircraft moves-it's just a big tricycle gear airplane." With
larger airplanes, they say, it's easier to backup because the wheels are
wider. "You can't overcorrect it as fast as a narrow wheelbase
airplane, such as an F-16," Hilleary explained.
AeroShell Square is a lot different today
than when "Skor" was parking airplanes on the grass at EAA
conventions some 20 years ago. But one thing that hasn't changed, he says,
is the people, the real reason he-and his fellow volunteers-come back
every year, many of them taking a week or two of vacation to do nearly the
same thing they do in their day jobs.
"It's hectic, and it's exhausting, but
it's rewarding to accommodate the requests and work with great people from
all over," he says. "It gets busier all the time, but the people
are so thankful for all we do."