While aircraft have the engine power and equipment to maneuver in many directions, the runway poses unique challenges that require additional machinery to overcome. On the ground, an aircraft cannot use its own power like reverse thrust around certain perimeters of an airport as this can pose a threat to nearby persons and buildings. Instead, planes rely on aircraft pushback tractors to maneuver them to different locations. Also commonly referred to as towing tractors, tug masters, and airport tractors, this blog will take a closer look at these vehicles and their functions.
When aircraft land on a runway, they pull into an aircraft stand or gate where passengers disembark. After routine services are completed, the aircraft is again ready for flight, but it must reverse to get back on the runway. This is where the role of the tractor comes in; the tug is a small vehicle operated by a driver with a towing hook or towing bar attached to the front. This hook attaches to the aircraft right below the nose and affixes onto the landing gear between the front wheels, allowing the two vehicles to face each other. Upon receival of a signal from the pilot, the driver pushes the aircraft to the correct position on the taxiway, which is a connecting pathway between aircraft stands and the runway. While this is the main purpose of pushback tractors, they have other uses as well.
Maintenance hangars are used for aircraft repairs and maintenance, and all aircraft must enter and exit with their engines off for safety reasons like foreign object debris (FOD) getting lodged in the engines. Therefore, a pushback tractor is used to move the aircraft both forward and backward throughout the hangar. They are also employed to move aircraft from one stand to another at airports for situations where the plane lands in one gate but departs from another or is scheduled to be grounded at a remote gate for a few hours.
Although it is less common than other applications, aircraft tractors are sometimes used to reposition aircraft that are parked incorrectly on an aircraft stand. On runways, aircraft must be positioned over a centerline which indicates where the aircraft should stop so it is spaced correctly from other aircraft and centered longitudinally. In addition to reverse thrust being dangerous on the ground, aircraft are also not designed to move forward at slow speeds, so although forward movement is not dangerous, it is not fuel efficient either. Fuel is consumed at extremely high rates because aircraft are designed to travel at hundreds of kilometers per hour which is why tugs are the preferred option for most runway movement.
The design of aircraft tractors takes four main factors into account: the weight of the aircraft, the slope of the apron surface, the number of aircraft engines running, and the surface conditions.
Pushback tractors rely on a diesel, a gearbox, and chassis designed for high torque, low speed operations. They maintain low profiles to avoid collision with aircraft, and they are designed to be extremely heavy with great traction. In general, tractors way upwards of 50 metric tons and the friction of the wheels prevents wheel slippage during operations. Additionally, all idling engines on aircraft act as another force the tractor must overcome, so with more engines comes a demand for a more powerful tug. Lastly, The slope of operating surfaces should be less than 2% as tractors are designed to operate on flat surfaces with little snow or rain to avoid slippage. Tractors with greater drawback pull can handle larger aircraft and tugs can operate with or without a tow bar depending on the design of the landing gear.
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