The 787 Dreamliner flies some of the longest routes in the world. Perth to London, Los Angeles to Singapore and Houston to Sydney to name a few. However, after covering 14,000km, the last few metres can be the most critical. Here’s how we do it…
If you’ve ever watched an aircraft at the gate, you’ll have noticed that there’s a lot going on. Catering trucks restocking the aircraft for its next flight. Baggage containers being unloaded and reloaded. A fuel truck uplifting the required amount of fuel. And, pretty important, the air bridge to allow the passengers to disembark and board.
For all this to work though, it’s imperative that the aircraft stops in exactly the correct position. Stop too soon and the air bridge may not reach the door. Stop too late and you could hit vehicles and other structures on the ground. Accuracy is everything.
With a wingspan of just over 60m, the 787-8 is wider than it is long. From where the pilot sits, their eyes are 5.5m above the ground. This means that there is a ‘blind spot’ of around 14m under the aircraft nose. As a result, steering the aircraft on the ground has its challenges. So, to help make sure that we stop the aircraft in exactly the correct spot, we get a little help from our friends.
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How We Steer
Firstly, we need to know how aircraft steer on the ground. That big control column in front of us just controls the surfaces on the wing and horizontal stabiliser (the bit by the tail). Very little use on the ground. What we need is the ability to steer the nose wheel. For that we use our feet and our hands.
Unlike in your car, the pedals under our feet have nothing to do with accelerating and a lot to do with braking and steering. By pushing the pedals one way or the other, we control the rudder on the tail and also the nose wheel. However, this is only limited to a few degrees. What we really need is something to get us round the tight turns. For this, we use the tiller.
Located outboard from each pilot, the tiller is used to turn the nose wheel up to 70 degrees. The pilot uses a combination of their feet on the pedals, and their hands on the thrust levers and tiller to steer the aircraft in the direction and speed they want.
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Being able to steer a Dreamliner accurately is all well and good, but how do we see from 5m above the ground where exactly to stop? To help us do this, most large airports have a special guidance system.
Located at the head of each parking stand, these laser guided docking systems are quite the piece of technology. Using 3D scanning, they not only detect the type of aircraft but can also detect any obstructions on the gate area.
This scanning then presents a display to the pilots which gives us a countdown distance to the stop point. It also tells us if we need to move left or right to be on the centre line. Finally, when we reach the correct spot, it tells us to stop.
Should any obstruction enter our path out of our field of vision, the docking system will detect this and immediately tell us to stop. This is why it’s super important that you stay seated with your seatbelt fastened until the seatbelt sign is turned off!
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What’s With the Table Tennis Bats?
What if the laser system breaks down or the airport isn’t big enough to have them? In those situations, we revert to good old-fashioned marshalling.
You may have seen those people on the ramp doing some kind of funky dance with what look like table tennis bats or mini light sabres. What they are doing is actually an incredibly important job.
By using a combination of signals, the marshaller does the job of the laser guidance system to park the aircraft safely on the stand. They have to keep a sharp look out for any obstructions whilst also making sure the aircraft stays on the centre line.
Another thing they have to be conscious of is staying visible to the pilots. As a result, you’ll often see them standing on blocks – or tugs like in the video below!
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