Flying blind is not an option

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When a conventional tow bar tractor is used to move an aircraft, safety requires that there is always a pilot in the cockpit ready to apply the brakes in case of an emergency – if, for example, a tow bar fails during manoeuvring and aircraft gets out of control.  While this sounds fine on paper, in reality there is something rather absurd about this situation because the pilot cannot actually see what manoeuvres the tug is undertaking or where it is, or what position it is in. It’s a good thing there is an alternative – the agile, sleek and easy-to-operate Mototok aircraft tug.

EVA talked to Thilo Wiers-Keiser, Mototok Co-Founder and Sales Director about the tug, and other challenges on the apron.

EVA: What is your view of the current safety regulations requiring the presence of a pilot when a tug moves an aircraft?

TWK: I believe this regulation is outdated and not very useful at all, because the pilot cannot actually see the tug or follow its manoeuvres. He can only react to instructions given to him by the wing walker and the other people supervising the towing manoeuvre; he cannot make any decisions on his own. When our tugs are used it is different, because you always have a good all-round view and you can use the radio remote to interrupt the operation at any time.

EVA: How did you come up with the idea for your tugs?

TWK: It was largely the brainchild of Kersten Eckert, co-founder of Mototok and the company’s current CEO. That was in 2003. Kersten is a keen pilot. He became frustrated with having to wait so long whenever he wanted to get his plane out of its hangar so that he could fly. He always had to make sure that there was a brakeman on board the plane and 2 or 3 other people keeping an eye on the wings and the tail, making sure that the plane didn’t run into anything when it was moved. He found it particularly aggravating when his plane was parked right at the back of the hangar because he would have to wait until all the other planes had been moved before he could even get to his.

EVA: What was it that made you so interested in this whole subject area?

TWK: These thoughts were the first in a long list of specifications that we drew up over time.. We had a whole host of requirements that traditional tugs were unable to satisfy and that we wanted to incorporate into a brand new generation of tugs. It was also important that these new features should offer benefits to all tug operators – the FBOs, MROs and manufacturers, companies with their own fleets, and also the special law enforcement forces all over the world, like the Bundespolizei in Germany, for example. For us, one of the most important specifications was that the tugs should be exclusively electrically powered because we were keen to minimise both emissions and maintenance upkeep.

EVA: What were the most important considerations for your tugs in the early days?

TWK: We were quite convinced that to guarantee safe manoeuvring the pivot point of the aircraft would have to be the same as the nose wheel. Although nobody had ever done it that way, it seemed perfectly obvious to us at the time, and it still remains a conspicuous shortcoming of all other tugs. We wanted to be sure that rotary motion of the wheel could not cause movement of the fuselage or wings, thereby ensuring maximum safety for our customers. I would even go so far as to describe this as a technological breakthrough.

EVA: When exactly is remote control used?

TWK: During manoeuvring and towing. We wanted to make sure that you could interrupt the towing operation instantaneously at any time. And because the operator is free to walk round the aircraft to obtain a clear, unobstructed view, we thought he should also be able to operate the tug hands-free via a wireless remote control. We also felt that it shouldn’t matter whether a plane had single or dual nose wheels or whether the tug approaches the plane from behind or from the front to pick up the nose wheel.

EVA: Does this new technology also provide more flexibility?

TWK: Definitely. Because there are no superfluous manoeuvres when parking or towing, the person guiding the plane into the hangar can park it much more accurately. As a result, the businessman or private pilot flying their plane to the World Economic Forum, for example, or to ART Basel, has a 40% better chance of parking their jet in the hangar rather than on the apron – simply because parking planes more accurately means using the available space in the hangar more efficiently. I mention the example of Air Service Basel because they are a good customer of ours and I know that their hangar operation is now working more efficiently and offering pilots a much more customer-friendly service.

EVA: Are your tugs also of interest to companies with their own fleets who operate their own hangars?

TWK: The answer is yes, we certainly have many customers who operate their own fleets. Our tugs support a wide range of aircraft, from turbopropslike the King Air to the Pilatus PC 12 and the Global Express. All sorts. We also support many helicopters with wheels, mainly from Agusta and Sikorsky. And when the helicopters are fitted with skids rather than wheels, we can offer the Helimo, which was designed specifically for this purpose.

EVA: Can you say which is the most important feature for your customers?

TWK: Time-savings, cost savings and hanger space savings all come into play. Overall, I’d say it’s the cost effectiveness that wins people over. Apart from that, our customers value different things depending on their circumstances and needs. For some, it is important for the ground power unit to be integrated in almost all of their tugs; for others, the extremely high traction is what matters. Operation is so easy and intuitive that training takes no longer than 3 hours and a driving licence is unnecessary. The fact that you can secure the nose wheel very easily in 15 seconds with an automatic “one-click function” has also won us many followers.