Traffic was backed up a little as we were leaving Tokyo the other day which meant we had to to wait in line on the parallel for our turn to take off. We happened to stop just abeam a parking apron where a maintenance crew was readying a 747 for tow. They were using one of the big tugs that can lift the nosewheel off the ground and capture it in a cradle. This makes it very easy to maneuver the aircraft from one position to another and gives a very smooth ride if the plane is full of passengers. The tug also has auxilliary electrical power capability. You can see the yellow power cord coming from the tug, looping around the steering cylinders at the rear of the nosewheel strut and connecting to the plane. It’s not obvious what the other line is that is coming out of the nosewheel well, but it is probably the cloth streamer attached to the end of the nosewheel pin. The pin is inserted into a hole in the nosewheel retraction mechanism to prevent the gear from retracting. I have seen these tugs moving 747s around at what seemed like 30 knots. It was probably not that fast, but it was definitely faster than a brisk walk. For those of you who may be curious, the ANA on the side of the tug stands for All Nippon Airways. If you have really good eyes, you can see the letters NCA on the underside of the aircraft nose. That’s a Nippon Cargo Airlines 747-400 freighter, not the private plane of the National Cheerleaders Association. (Amazing the things you find with a Google search.)
I watched the maintenance crew for a couple of minutes before we moved up in line for takeoff. It reminded me of a unique tow method I came across while at the Reno Air Races last year. Tulsa Towbots had a booth set up in the pit area and was offering their Towbots for sale. I saw several Towbots in use in the race pit area and then later, at the end of the event, in the National Aviation Heritage Invitational area where they were moving some of the larger aircraft involved in that competition. The unit looks and works very much like a miniature of the ANA tug. It is radio controlled using a handheld control unit. You run the unit right up to the aircraft wheel, maneuver under it, and roll the wheel up into the unit where it is clamped it in a little dolly. The dolly is able to swivel 360 degrees on it’s own axis. That means that the maneuvering of the aircraft can be done without the aircraft nosewheel (or tailwheel) having to swivel on it’s own. There are several models available including a small aircraft version, a BomberBot capable of moving large warbirds, a model for helicopters and a version for use with aircraft that have wheelpants installed. Their web site shows the various models and has videos of their operation. It’s a great piece of equipment – and a really good idea for a Christmas present!