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.
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.
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.”