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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedUnstacking the planes on AeroShell Square
By Rose Dorcey, EAA AirVenture Today

J.J. Hechtl, Zonnie Fritsche, and Bob Hilleary are three of the talented "West Ramp Rats" volunteers who coordinate aircraft movement on AeroShell Square.

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 and says.

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."

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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