A day in the life of the line

The ramp at Fargo Jet Center, busy as always.
The Line guys literally roll out the red carpet for every airplane.

An airplane pulls off the Charlie taxiway. It doesn’t matter if the bird is a Gulfstream, Citation, Cub or homebuilt. A man appears on the ramp, waving. The pilot turns toward him. The man waves the airplane into place, the old motion of bringing arms together over his head bringing the airplane to a halt. Chocks go under the nose wheel. A red carpet is placed on the ground. When the door is opened, the man says “Welcome to Fargo. How can I help you?”

It’s a familiar sight and one of the real comforts after reaching a destination. The ramp personnel at an FBO, better known as the Line guys, welcome us and see us off. They are often the front door to a thousand other services. They appear and disappear, oftentimes as if by magic, and they seem to know what we need before we’ve understood it ourselves.

8:30 a.m. A Cirrus pilot preflights. Catering is delivered to a Hawker. A V-tail Bonanza is marshaled in. There are eighteen airplanes parked in view.

In Fargo, the Line desk is a long counter behind a large window that looks out on the ramp. Binoculars, ear plugs, radios, coffee mugs and newspapers fill the spaces. A large white-board shows the day’s expected schedule, with ETA, ETD, N#, and special needs such as catering or rental cars. It’s under constant revision as pilots change their minds to accommodate weather, whimsy and owners. The guys look at the board, glancingly, every time they move through the room. But the schedule is fluid, the topic of one long on-going conversation in words and movement, and I suspect everyone could recite the whole list from memory.

A computer monitor shows flight tracking—every commercial and IFR airplane heading toward Fargo. At the moment there are four.

The Line desk is usually empty. The guys walk around, or drive Lektro tugs through what seems to be an obstacle course, with radios clipped to their pockets, talking to each other and to the customer service desk, reporting fuel amounts, parking rearrangements, incoming and departing airplanes. Everyone has one eye turned toward the Charlie taxiway, looking for incoming airplanes, and one eye turned toward the FBO door, where departing pilots will appear. It’s the most watchful place I’ve ever been.

Line guy fueling a jet
Fueling everything from a Cub to a business jet is all in a day’s work.

Jeremy Sobolik, Line Services Manager at the Fargo Jet Center, says, “Marshal in and marshal out. It’s good customer service. It’s also safety. In a way, that’s the whole world of the line—customer service and safety. But both of those are a lot deeper than most people realize.”

The work they do has deep consequences, and so they are inspected by nearly everyone. The Fargo Jet Center has a contract for military fuel, so they are inspected and audited by the military, and the contract for commercial fuel in Fargo, so they are inspected and audited by every commercial airline in town. Because Fargo is an international port-of-entry, the line personnel control regulated garbage under the eye of the US Customs Office and Border Patrol. “No bananas from Paris,” Jeremy says.

In addition, the Line has to meet ATA 103 Standards. The personnel is NATA Safety First Trained. The manuals on the line desk are large and deep. There are procedures for receiving a shipment of avgas or jet fuel. The delivery has to be visually inspected, specific-gravity tested, measured, logged. Every morning the fuel delivery trucks on site have to be sumped, tested. The drained fuel has to be stored and then removed. Every molecule is recorded. There are procedures for nearly everything.

At noon, the ramp holds a Challenger 300, a Hawker 400, a Citation II, a King Air, a Mooney, a Bonanza, a handful of Cessnas of various size, and more. There are eighteen aircraft parked within site of the Line desk window, but only six of them are from this morning’s count.

At 2:00 p.m., a Sanford Medical Center King Air lands and offloads a patient into an ambulance. The line guys immediately refuel the airplane. “It has to be mission-ready at all times,” Matt Schons tells me. “It gets priority.” Working the line also has unexpected perks. The medical helicopter pilot sends over gift cards from a local pizza shop.

Lektro in hangar
At the end of the day, it’s time to stack the hangar.

Sometimes things get screwy. Because of its 9000 foot runway, Fargo is often a divert-to site when bad weather makes some other Midwestern airport temporarily unavailable. There are stories of the commercial ramp and the whole of the alpha taxiway turning into a crowded parking lot. There are times when a knee-knocking prairie thunderstorm will pop up close to the field and it’s a dash to get every plane under a roof.

Emergencies are a bit of a gray area. The emergency response team at the airport handles the actual event. But when it’s all over and there’s an airplane in a place it should not be, the Line guys help with the removal.

6:00 p.m. A local pilot can’t get his Mooney to start. The line guys drive a Lektro out to the plane and hook it up for a jump start. It doesn’t work. They all stare at the engine intently. Then it works.

Overnight, the ramp will see business jets on the way from somewhere in Europe to California. Now, however, even though it’s a long time before sunset, it’s evening so the guys begin to restack the hangars. They know which planes are supposed to come out first in the morning. “Of course,” Jeremy says, “the minute we are done the phone will ring and whatever plane we’ve put in the way back will need to come out.”

7 Comments

  • The guys at KJQF – Concord Regional Airport in Concord, NC are absolutely wonderful. It is home to many NASCAR teams, businesses, flight schools and a medical helicopter from the local hospital. When I was a student pilot, I was treated with the same great service as I witnessed being given to the Falcons, Citations and other professional crews. Whether it’s 2:00 P.M. or 2:00 A.M.

  • It’s great to read an article that recognizes the line. Having worked in Line Service in Austin w/ Signature, and then San Santonio w/ Raytheon while trying to earn my private license, I know just exactly how hard these guys work & how much responsibility rests on them. They’re most often underappreciated & always underpaid yet they maintain a level of service that couldn’t be found in any other industry that pays so poorly. It can only be for the love of all things aviation.
    From fueling the major carriers, to taking care of local pilots, fueling the flight schools or parking a King Air in a crowded hangar, these men & women carry a great load day in & day out. They typically work 12 hour shifts & rotate on a swing schedule. There’s little reward other than the satisfaction of a job well done. Take a minute to get to know one next time you visit an FBO… I promise it will pay off!

  • I also think it’s great to have an article about the line crews. When I was a student pilot on my solo cross country, I appreciated the friendly assistance from the fine folks at Lane Aviation in Columbus, Ohio(KCMH). Twenty-three years later, I’m impressed by the treatment I get when I fly a Cessna 172 into Huntington, West Virginia KHTS)from the wonderful people at Huntington Jet Center. I agree with Jimmy J. that getting to know the people who do so much for us on a first name basis is a good to show our respect and appreciation.

  • Kudos for the well-written article on “line guys.” I must point out that I’ve been helped by some very energetic and competent “line gals,” too. The sad thing is that the pay and work conditions are so poor that the turnover at most FBOs is very high. Many line folks who’ve served me are student or low-time private pilots with aspirations, but as we all know, “many are called, but few are chosen.”

  • My job for seven years at NetJets getting owners here and there all over the US, Canada and the Caribbean went smoothly because of all the hard working line men and women.

    Meet you at the door with and smile and always able to make things happen that seemed impossible. Couldn’t have done my job without you.

    Thanks and the best to all of you.

  • As a Ops Mgr for an FBO in California it is nice to see a positive article. From time to time it gets a little tough to take some of the few negative views that a small segment has about FBO’s in general. Plus I know Jeremy, and he and all the people at Fargo Jet Center are some of the best in the industry.

    Great Job Fargo Jet Center!!

  • I’ll never forget the time we made a fuel stop somewhere in the Plains on a cross-the-country trip in the Archer: middle of the day, not a soul in the sky. We were getting the real red carpet treatment when a King Air announced short final on the unicom and the line boys scrambled off, leaving us half fueled with an apologetic “sorry, gotta take care of the King Air”. We were in no hurry, so just sat on the wing drinking a soda, taking in the sunshine, waiting for them to finish, but got a real kick when a Citation reported short final and the line boys ditched the King Air to take care of the Big Guys. The look on the King Air crew’s face was priceless!

    That one story aside, I have to agree that FBO’s and line crews are fantastic all across the country. On that same trip we had people loan us their own cars, and one FBO manager even left the office open for us all night at an airport where we were camping so that we could use the potty and check the weather and brew ourselves a coffee early in the morning.

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