"Your flight is now ready for boarding," the voice announces over the PA system, and passengers in the airport departure lounge file out the gate with lttle thought about the behind-the-scenes work necessary to prepare the plane for takeoff. This is the anatomy of a few undramatic but vital hours in the daily life of "Fat Albert."
-- I have this vision of Tim Becker lying in a sweat-soaked bed, his body shaking in fear, his brow furrowed, his mouth twisted in a terribel grimace as he dreams that same, terrifying nightmare. "The peanuts! The peanuts! My God, we've forgotten the peanuts!" he screams as he jolts awake, his frightened wife Michele clutching his trembling hand. "It's all right darling, it's just a dream . . . just a dream . . ."
But it isn't just a dream, it is a daily nightmare for Becker, who must face the peanut crisis every day as the 747 coordinator for Braniff International at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. As 747 coordinator, Becker is responsible for seeing that "Fat Albert," or "The Great Pumpkin," as Braniff's giant orange 747s are known to frequent flyers, is fueled, cleaned and ready to fly back to London within hours.
When you are dealing with a plane that is 235 feet long, with a wingspan of 196 feet, a height of 54 feet, and a fully loaded weight of 780,000 pounds, you are facing a monumental task, especially when you have as little time as one hour to complete the task.
This day Becker is lucky. Flight 601 is on time and touches down at DFW at 3:46 p.m. By the time it completes it long taxi, it reaches the gate at 4:01. The crews will have 2 1/2 hours to service the plane before it leaves at 6:30.
Hours before zero hour, Becker has been at work, coordinating the arrival. He has been talking with catering and maintenance, making sure the jetway is clear, telling U. S. Customs how many passengers will be on the plane so the customs hall is properly manned, getting three wheelchairs and an ambulance ready as requested by the pilot when the plane is 2 1/2 hours out of Dallas, checking freight documents and relaying any mechanical or interior problems cited by the captain. When the door opens at 4:01, Tim Becker has already put in a half-day's work. Now the hard part begins.
Before the first of 340 passengers is allowed to disembark, Becker and his crew receive the plane's log book, one for maintenance (look at the auxiliary engine; the crew had trouble starting the plane in London) and one for the interior (seat 11-h won't recline, and a bathroom toilet won't flush).
As the first passenger steps off the plane ("Gad, it's hot here," remarks the Englishman), Becker enters the palne, along with a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector, who removes all fruits and vegetables from the airplane. Once the plane is cleared by the inspector -- at 4:12 -- the 22-man cleaning crew enters through the back door and begins to pick up the more than two tons of garbage left on the plane by passengers.
Before this the six baggage handlers have been removing the containerized baggage buckets and, 10 minutes after Fat Albert reached the gate, Ian Simpson and his crew have unloaded the plane and are transferring the nearly 900 bags to the customs area as a U.S. Customs inspector and a dog trained in marijuana detection watch (and smell).
Under the plane the gray "honey bucket" truck empties the bathrooms; the green bulk-bin truck unloads dogs, cats and bicycles from the back of the baggage section; the orange oil truck oils the monster; the air-conditioning truck is hooked up to cool the plane; a cherry-picker is raised the 45 feet to the cockpit window with a window cleaner on board, and one yellow fuel truck races up to begin refueling, which makes Becker angry.
"He was suppose to do that at Gate 13, after we moved her there," he says later. "But he's a new guy and followed the wrong procedure. That probably cost us three to five minutes in time."
Meanwhile, back on board, the cleaners continue to pick up paper, clean the ashtrays, wipe off the tray tables, replace the seat head covers, replace the pillow covers, fold blankets, sweep the carpet (and clean it with a $30,000 steam cleaner), rewind the film ("Coal Miner's Daughter") and report any major problems to maintenance.
At 4:30 Becker picks up the plane's intercom and announces that Fat Albert is being pulled away from Gate 22 and taken down to Gate 13, where it will receive passengers later that afternoon. If the plane has only an hour or so to be cleaned and refueled, it will remain at Gate 22, but Braniff prefers to have it at 13, Becker says, because "that is our London gate, and we want everyone to identify it as such."
As the plane is being pulled to Gate 13, the cleaners continue to fill their orange and pink trash pabs, while engineers are in the cockpit testing the plane's engines, a task that must be performed on the concrete taxiway since the force of the engines' exhaust would peel back the asphalt at the gate like a black banana.
As soon as the plane reaches Gate 13, catering trucks begin unloading empty food trays and replenishing the plane with first-class and economy dinners and breakfasts for the flight back to London.
All this time Becker is walking back and forth, checking his clipboard, consulting with Billy Griffith, the cleaning foreman, talking with baggage handlers, spot-checking ashtrays and seat pockets -- in general coordinating the ballet that involves 71 performers from fuelers to cleaners, from caterers to customer service representatives.
Meanwhile, in the captains' ready room, with its old leatherette sofas, screeching television, weather charts and haze of cigarette smoke, sits Capt. Gene Whitsitt, the senior officer on board tonight's flight to London. Whitsitt, who has been with Braniff for 37 years, is sitting at a table, alone, eating a cupcake (perhaps he, too, has had airline food) and studying weather charts.
The captain has been here for four hours, although he is only required to be here 1 1/2 hours before flight time. He meets his crew (it changes every month), goes over the flight plan that will take them over Newfoundland and Shannon, Ireland, on the way to London, studies the computer traffic charts and prepares for the long evening ahead.
In a nearby room Michele Collins is discussing the flight with her crew of 15 cabin attendants, selecting duty positions, discussing coordination of food service, determining any special work necessary on the London flight.
The crew boards shortly after 5:20 to stow their luggage and get ready for the flight: the flight crew to check the engines and dials, the cabin attendants to check the catering service and liquor. This is when the peanut crisis arises.
"We have no peanuts!" says flight attendant Sherry Clark. Becker's nightmare becomes reality as he discovers that there are, indeed, no peanuts. He is off to find the caterers.
Meanwhile, Gwen Martin is setting up the bar in first class, placing the silver champagne bucket, champagne glasses and flowers in the first-class serving area and uncorking the first of untold bottles of Peiper Heidsieck that will die on the flight to London.
Outside at the ticket counter, passengers are being assigned seats, going through security checks and relaxing in the Concorde Room, the special lounge for London-bound passengers. Becker is close at hand to solve any problems.
At 5:50, 10 mimutes late (damn that fueler!), the passengers begin to board, the last cleaner goes out the back door, the caterers are gone, the flight attendants put on their smiles and the work is over -- almost.
Becker returns triumphant. He has found some peanuts! The nightmare is over.
At exactly 6:30 the big plane, filled with peanuts, 16 cabin attendants, a three-man flight crew, 12 first-class and 154 economy-class passengers, is pushed away from the gate. Braniff flight 602 is on its way to London, right on schedule. The corporate biggies will be happy.
"Our executives can see the tail of this plane from headquarters," says Becker. "This is our flagship, and they want to see that tail moving at 6:30. It's my job to see that it's done, and if it isn't, I have to answer for it.
"In order to get it off on time, you have to be flexible, adaptive, even devious," Devious? "Well," he says with a grin. "Remember those peanuts? A few people on their way to Los Angeles tonight will have to do without."
So the man with the yellow ear plugs, blue plastic ribbon holding them around his neck, slowly removes the plugs, sighs and goes back to his office for more paperwork. He will be home by 8:30, unless this is school night (he is getting a master's degree in business administration), have a light meal and convince his wife that this is, indeed, an exciting way to make a living.
And in London, eight hours and 17 minutes after flight 602 leaves Dallas, an English Tom Becker will be at the cabin door, clipboard in hand.