Confessions of a former line boy

I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Coors Light didn’t exist. In fact, if you lived on the East Coast, even regular Coors wasn’t available. It was a mystique beer in 1973, available only to those lucky enough to live in the Wild West, or to a few lucky line boys who worked on the night crew at Piedmont Aviation in Norfolk, Virginia.

Fortunately for us, there was a 1966 Jet Commander based there in those days, and flown by pilots who always took great care of the line crew. On more than one occasion, the crew of N222GL would provide us a case of Coors when they returned from one of their trips to the Rockies. It’s no wonder that the pilots of N222GL were our favorite flight crew. Being thoughtful of those who do the tough jobs for little pay can make a big difference in their lives. I never forgot the lesson.

You see, being a line boy teaches us how to treat people and, in turn, how we like to be treated. The fact that I can remember N222GL, N399TL, and N11LA from 43 years ago, but can’t remember what happened last week is probably more indicative of age, but also a vivid reminder of the experiences around each of these airplanes.

Beech Duke
The Duke is a great-looking airplane, but it’s not much fun for a line boy to move around.

Line boys have their favorite airplanes. A Beechcraft Duke, N399TL was my dream airplane, but the airplane didn’t feel the same way about me. The Duke has a long nose, and once the towbar was attached to the tug, there’s not much clearance between the two.

I was charged with parking the airplane in the group hangar on a very dark, cold, and rainy night in February of 1973. We had an old tug that must have been built in WWII. As I was backing the Duke into the hangar, my foot slipped off the clutch pedal. The tug lurched ahead, punching a softball size hole directly in the nose of the Duke. I felt horrible! I should have asked for help, and now I had to wait until morning, worrying how to break the news to the station manager. They called him “TC” and he was tough.

He was livid about my error. For the next couple of days I had to look at my favorite Duke sitting in front of the maintenance hangar with a pink nose made of “curing body filler.” It was a fitting punishment. Lesson learned: never be afraid to ask for help!

Line boys also have dreams. Many want to be airline pilots some day. I was one of those. I thought working at Piedmont would be my ticket. In those days, Piedmont Aviation was the parent company of Piedmont Airlines, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The FBO was owned by Piedmont Aviation and flight instructors could work their way up to charter pilots and, in some cases, have an opportunity to fly a YS-11A or 737-200 for the airline.

Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. I didn’t. The closest I got to the cockpit was as an aircraft cleaner on the night crew. We cleaned Piedmont jets while they sat on the apron overnight in Norfolk. When the weather was good, we cleaned the exhaust smoke from the tails and bellies of the 737-200s with Scotch-Brite™ Pads, attached to very long extension poles. Little did I know at the time that selling Scotch-Brite™ pads would become part of my 35-year career later on. Those first jobs are so very important!

Line boy filling 172
It’s not an easy job, but it does offer plenty of lessons for a young person.

When the weather was bad we cleaned the interiors on Piedmont’s 737 Pacemakers. Do you remember the days on airlines when the back ten rows were for the smokers? I sure do, because I had to clean that gunk off the seats in the middle of the night with a Scotch-Brite™ pad and 409. I decided never to smoke. Thank goodness for the lessons from being a line boy!

Line boys also make mistakes. A Beech King Air, N11LA, has a special place in my heart. It was owned by Landmark Communications, and Frank Batten, the CEO of Landmark, was a frequent passenger. Mr. Batten went on to create the Weather Channel, and I always respected his vision and drive. [Editor’s Note: John Coleman was co-founder of the Weather Channel. He had formerly served as a chief meteorologist at WLS-TV in Chicago and as a forecaster for Good Morning America.]

I hadn’t been a line boy very long when the supervisor directed me to service the windshield deice reservoir in N11LA. He pointed to the corner of the hangar where two 55-gallon drums of solvent were stored. One said “De Icing Fluid” and one said “Isopropyl Alcohol.” Since I was servicing the windshield deice reservoir, I selected the “De Icing Fluid” and nervously filled the reservoir in the King Air.

As I walked back to the hangar, a little voice told me I better check with someone to make sure I had used the right solvent. Sure enough, I was wrong and should have used the “Isopropyl Alcohol.” Oh well, back to the station manager and another confession to “TC…” The King Air had to cancel the flight and the airplane went back to the maintenance hangar to have the tank drained. It’s hard to admit you’ve made a mistake, but they do happen. Admit it and go on.

Shortly thereafter I was transferred from the night shift to the day shift. They said my “people skills” were better suited to “dealing with customers.” Ha-ha! They were right! I lasted another six months and went on to a sales career.

Addendum to the story – the airplane that delivered the Coors:

Jet Commander
The Jet Commander that doubled as a beer delivery airplane.

Design of the jet powered Aero Commander first began in 1961. This early example was a 1966 model and, as such, was produced by the Aero Commander Division of Rockwell International, later to become a Division of North American Aviation. Since North American was already producing the Sabreliner, this became a slight problem (some overtones of anti-trust laws started rearing their head – although I don’t know why: lots or manufacturers produce more than one jet). Whatever. In the event, the manufacturing rights to the Jet Commander were sold off to Israeli Aircraft Industries in 1967. (Both the FAA and Airliners.net refers to it as Israel Aircraft Industries – wouldn’t you think they’d get it right?)

Production then continued with the Model 1123/1124 and the name changed to Westwind. This aircraft had a rather checkered career. It was delivered as N6513X. It was then sold to Switzerland as HB-VBX. My shot shows it at Santa Monica in 1966 just after application of the European rego. I am not sure how long it stayed in Switzerland (not long) and was then repatriated as N33GL. It became N222GL and had a mechanic’s lien thrown on the hull for some unpaid maintenance bills (which action was then thrown out by the courts) after which it was re-registered N222HM.

My trail grows cold after it became N200LF and its ultimate fate is unknown.

 

Do you have a favorite line boy or line girl story? Add a comment below.

12 Comments

  • As a former line gal I heartily concur. You treat your line crew right and they will treat you right. If you ask for something special, a little tip doesn’t hurt. It’s not as easy a job as it might appear.

  • Thank you Lindsay. It is a job with a good deal of responsibility and the folks that take care of our airplanes deserve the recognition… Best to you.

  • Hey Vinton, I was a line boy, too. Your mistakes weren’t so bad. We all made some errors. On more than one occasion I filled jet tanks with avgas… Oops! One time I dumped a holding tank on the tarmac instead of the honey wagon. Hah! Guess who cleaned that up? Then, the FBO got a new avgas truck, a diesel powered truck. The line boss asked me to fill it up one day because it was running low. I promptly filled the hydraulic tank full to the top. Never did figure out where the fuel filler was, and why I never got fired is beyond me. I suppose it was all the grovelling I did afterwards.

    Today I am a pilot and own my own airplane. Yes, I do know how to treat the line boys. I always give them a tip. You know, when I call for fuel now, I don’t have to tell them who I am. They know who I am by my voice. “Yes Sir, Mr. Ivines, we will be right over.”

    • Thank you Thomas for your comment… I know the folks who take care of your airplane have a great deal of respect for you.. Also, I remember one of the new guys on the line back in those days trying to fuel a new MU-2. . Those things have huge tip tanks and usually require a step ladder to reach them. Unfortunately, no one told our new employee you can’t fuel one side all at once.. By the time we got there, the plane was tilted over at an ungodly angle, and the tank was almost on the ground.. Another lesson learned.. Take care and thank you again.

  • Vinton, nice story. Here’s one for you: One winter 15 years ago, I was flying for NWA one winter Saturday. We flew non-stop from Minneapolis to Cancun, departing MSP in a miserable snowstorm, returning the same day. When we arrived in Cancun, the weather was 85*F and beautiful. Our ramp agent Jose asked how was the weather in Minneapolis, and after trying to describe the weather for him, he told me he just couldn’t imagine snow. The next weekend, I flew the same trip. Upon arrival, I asked Jose to meet the aircraft immediately after arrival. I delivered a cooler to him that I had filled on the ramp in Minneapolis 4 hours earlier, full of snow! So Jose and I had what was probably the first ever snowball flight on the ramp in Cancun. I’m sure he enjoyed it as much as I did and the evidence evaporated in only a few minutes.

    • Chris, I really appreciate your comment and can identify with the snow at MSP.. I was transferred there in October of 1991.. In fact, our first day in the relocation office was Halloween of 1991. The snow started falling at 10 and by 2 pm we were up to our calves in fresh powder while looking for a house in Woodbury. We booked it to the airport and caught the last NWA flight to Atlanta that left that day.. 32″ of snow was the result and I recall it was somewhat of a record, even for Minnesota! I have a great deal of respect for your folks that flew the 727s, DC9s, Boeings, etc…. I never had that experience but I’m sure Jose in Cancun will never forget you guys!

  • I work in Dallas and occasionally we get a Leinenkugal or two. My advice for pilots is if you want a lav service and your aircraft uses a donut plug, tip early. Once I was servicing the lav on a tenant challenger that flew to Mexico where it was serviced without the donut being removed. When I pulled the donut, about 7 gallons of used lav juice came pouring out. Fortunately I saw it begin to drip and can move quick when I need to so it only got on my gloves but made quite the mess under our arrival canopy.

  • Maybe I’m in the minority, but as a pilot and current part-time lineman, I don’t like receiving cash tips. I find it makes me want to treat private jet passengers and crew better than the little Cessna who stops in for a top-off. I try to treat each person who stops at our FBO with equal respect and friendly service.

    Speaking from personal experience, the best tip you can give a lineman is to treat them with respect. Some pilots won’t give us the time of day, as if we’re lower than them.
    Hey jerk, I’ve had my license for 16 years and I know a thing or two ok? Just because you got a fancy corporate gig right out of UD doesn’t make you better than me. If you carry your own bags, help tie the aircraft down, respect my time by calling ahead if you’re landing close to closing time, that goes a lot farther in my book than cash.

  • Richard, Thanks for your comment.. I found my historical info on the internet and here is what I read. The model we had on the field was a 1966 Jet Commander. It seems that North American Rockwell sold the rights to IA in 1968? Thank you again for your comment on my article. I do appreciate you taking the time to do so…

    From Wikipedia:
    The Westwind was originally designed in the United States by Aero Commander as a development of its twin-propeller namesake aircraft, first flying on 2 January 1963 as the Aero Commander 1121 Jet Commander[1]. It was of broadly conventional business jet arrangement, with two engines mounted in nacelles carried on the rear fuselage. However the wings were mounted halfway up the fuselage instead of the typical low-wing arrangement of aircraft in this class. After successful testing, the aircraft was put into series production with deliveries to customers beginning in early 1965[1].
    Shortly thereafter, Aero Commander was acquired by North American Rockwell. The Jet Commander created a problem, since Rockwell already had an executive jet of its own design, the Sabreliner, and could not keep both in production because of anti-trust laws. It was therefore decided to sell off the rights to the Jet Commander, which were purchased by IAI in 1968[1].

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