Towing on a Grand Scale

In my quest to experience unusual vehicles, I spent a day with Air Canada. No, not in a jet, but towing a Boeing 767 around the airport. Air Canada has a total worldwide fleet of 335 aircraft; yet the company has 1,400 motorized vehicles at Toronto Lester B Pearson International Airport alone. Nine of those motorized vehicles are Douglas-Kalmar TBL-280 Tugmasters.

A conventional towing tractor is used for aircraft pushback. This involves connecting a bar to the nose gear and the tractor. These paymovers can do it all, but for speed and lower cost, professionals turn to a towbarless unit. Rather than connect a bar to the nose wheels, the tractor grabs the wheels, picks up the front of the airplane and goes.

Let’s put this in perspective. The airplane we were about to tow across the airport was a Boeing 767-300ER. This plane is 180 feet long and weighs 200,000 lbs. empty. Douglas Equipment Limited of Cheltenham, UK makes the TBL-280 Tugmaster. Like the 767, the TBL-280 is a large vehicle, over 26 feet long, 13.5 feet wide and weighing 35,000 pounds. The engine is a 6 cylinder Deutz 436 cu in (7.1 litre) turbo diesel with 255 hp and 698 lb-ft of torque. While it is two-wheel drive, it is four-wheel steering. There are four steering modes: two-wheel front, two-wheel rear, four-wheel coordinated or crab steering.

My guide and the tug operator was Craig Adams, Air Canada Aircraft Towing & Flight Deck Procedures Manager. The heated/air-conditioned cockpit has two seats, one for the driver with a GTAA “D” license and one for the radio operator with a restricted aeronautical radio license. As I didn’t have either, Air Canada got special permission for me to ride in the radio operator’s seat while a support van followed us to provide the radio backup. As the tug was parked by the maintenance building across the airport, my first ride was without a load. The only suspension is the tires giving, but with 125-psi pressure, there isn’t a lot of give. The pneumatic seats help, but without weight, the ride is rough.

Craig drove through a tunnel under several runways to the vehicle corridor, where acres and acres of pavement lay ahead of us. To get from A to B is anything but a straight line. There are strict paths and rules for driving. Speed, and you can get a ticket.

We approached the plane. Craig lined up the tug with the nose wheels, lowered the cradle, opened the gate, drove to the nose gear and closed the gate. Then we went into the plane cockpit to turn on and off various systems as well as release the parking brake, close the door and back up the passenger loading bridge.

Then it was time to lift up the front of the plane. In about four seconds, the nose gear was lifted 18 inches off of the ground, along with 29 tons of aircraft. Craig radioed the control tower for clearance to back out and head for a maintenance hanger. We slowly backed up, stopped, rotated the driver’s seat 180 degrees, then started forward across the taxiway. The driver is always looking in the forward direction. The defining moment of the day was driving 27 kph, then turning around to realize we had a BIG jet connected to us with a combined weight of over 235,000 lbs.

Once the tug clamps onto the aircraft, it is considered part of the plane and must meet full aviation standards. Rick Tanner, Manager of Ground Support Equipment Maintenance, showed me the 72,000 sq. ft. maintenance shop where a 1993 TBL-280 was undergoing a complete rebuild. A new tug is about $600,000, while a rebuild takes a crew of four about nine weeks, saving approximately one-half the cost of a new unit. John Bourque, head of the rebuild team, pointed out improvements they had designed and implemented. All controls are by wire, and the routing of all wiring and hydraulic hoses is a work of art. I was impressed by the pride that the team displayed in their work and the operation. Something I never thought about is the fact that passengers see the condition of the airline’s equipment as a reflection on how well maintenance is done in general.

The building has the largest paint booth I have ever seen.

I wanted to experience an unusual vehicle and I sure got it. I would especially like to thank the Air Canada Aircraft Services team. They went well above and beyond to obtain the clearances that allowed me to be the first journalist any of them could remember to ride in an active tug. In the post-9/11 days security is a priority, and it took a coordinated effort from Air Canada and the GTAA to make this happen. I will be flying to Germany in November, and I will look out the airplane window with a new respect for the people and vehicles I see.

Appeared in the Dec 2, 2006 – Toronto Sun Saturday Edition


  1. Rich Helms February 1, 2007


    Wy writing is usually on automobiles. I found the tug an interesting vehicle. It is built for one task only but does that task very well.

    Actually the tug does become part of the aircraft when it picks up the nose-gear.

    My recent interest has been in more unusual vehicles like the 70 ton dump truck. This winter I am traveling up north to ride with a truck convey delivering fuel to the DeBeers diamond mine in northern Ontario. This is a 400 km trip on ice roads built on the frozen lake.

  2. Mark Fenn January 31, 2007

    So, writing about Air Canada aircraft on the ground. As opposed to in the air.

    Anchoring writing to the ground, one supposes, to its Canadian context. Whereas aviation journalism is in a class itself, though not intrinsically Canadian. In fact, aviation journalism has the nearest potential to universality of virtually any writing, it could be claimed.

    Indeed, the activities of airports such as Toronto Pearson, and writing provoked thereby, are eloquent expressions of universality in the particular.

    Canadian writing indeed. But potentially the most universal, albeit inanimate, expression of the Canadian mosaic.

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