Following Directions: Ramp Traffic

Marshalling aircraft is one of the most thankless tasks that linemen must perform. Often overlooked during pilot training, and in practice, it’s also prone to mishaps. As those who work the line will tell you, it is one of the least understood areas of operation among pilots … that’s us, folks.

Confronting the meat grinder: Maybe I’m not very gifted when it comes to interpreting body language, and visually integrating the gestalt of how limbs are moved to express something, whether it be practical or artistic. Perhaps I’m being both peevish and unrefined, but ballet, for example, leaves me whelmed. Some of these signals, truth be told, don’t require the choreographic intuition of a John Travolta, but some others can seem (at least to me) a bit incongruous. In the context of intimate airport ground operations, someone like myself could present a bit of a problem to the lineman dancing around on the dangerous side of the whirring blades. I have heard that the number one pet peeve of linemen (and women) everywhere is the pilot who doesn’t know (or obey) hand signals. (For linemen, the complaint is reserved to activities on the ramp.)

Sign language: Before I launch into some of the more common hand signals, let me say that marshalling signals in general (those gestures and upper body positions meant to guide or lead one or more individuals in some effective way) are not unique to aviation. Some of those shown here may have other meanings in another realm of activity. Even within aviation, some standard signals suggested by, for example, the Air Transport Association of America, may be improvised a bit and slightly modified in practice. Someone more limber might make it seem a bit like break dancing; someone else might not. You get the general idea; don’t expect military standards everywhere you go, and just try to get the gist of it all.

Things to keep in mind: First, whenever you’re taxiing near anyone, never rush things; take it slow. Be careful and have respect for the person on the outside — manipulate the aircraft in a manner that will manifest your concern for the wellbeing of others and instill in all onlookers confidence in your abilities and control. Once you’ve got that prop stopped, do take care to make it known that you have taken the key out of the ignition and that you’ve turned the master switch off. (I always make a bit of an exaggerated arm motion to the line person, which tells them in no uncertain terms that the key is on top of the dashboard, and not in the ignition.) At fields where the ramp is known to be busy, and your aircraft might need to be moved, be aware that it might be best and actually safest to leave the brake off. When you park somewhere without benefit of specific directions, be wary of just where it is. You wouldn’t want to find out later that you had parked behind a jet and you’d never put the gust lock in.

Ramp Traffic 101: These signals are by no means exhaustive; there are still more. (Also, you may see the use of “Day-Glo” table tennis paddles or at night, illuminated wands, rather than just their hands.) From the upper-left, going left-to-right along each of the three rows of images, here are most of the ones you will probably need to know. These are described from the pilot’s point of view, since the two players always face each other. To remove all ambiguity, when a description involves the marshaller’s arm motion or position, I try to state specifically just which arm that is: left or right.

Figure 1

When you see the line person standing with one arm up, or both upraised, it means “I’ll be your traffic cop today“, or simply “this way“. For the big guys, the marshaller raises his extended arms from fully forward to upward above his head, for gate identification.

One variation involves the palms facing upwards or backwards, with arms repeatedly moved upward and backward from the elbow in a kind of beckoning motion. A similar motion might involve the arms extended, bent at the elbows, moving the hands up and down from waist to head.

Left and right turns confused me, at first. (When I first saw these, I wasn’t sure if I should be focusing on the bent arm or the extended one.) When I say “left” incidentally, I say that from the pilot’s perspective.

For a left turn, the facing marshaller might point his or her right arm and hand downward, moving the left arm down from vertically overhead to horizontally forward, repeating that motion. Or, with the right arm extended up at a 90-degree angle and parallel to the ground, and the left arm making the “come ahead” signal but towards the side, bending repeatedly upward at the elbow. The idea being that you should bring that wing forward.

For a right turn, the marshaller may point his or her left arm and hand downward, moving the right arm down from vertically overhead to horizontally forward, repeatedly. Or here, with the left arm extended up at a 90-degree angle and parallel to the ground, and the right arm making the “come ahead” signal but towards the side, bending repeatedly upward at the elbow. The rate of motion generally indicates the rate of aircraft movement desired.

This one is easy. The arms are sometimes placed down with the palms toward the ground, and then moved up and down several times. The extended arms may be moved downwards in a “patting” gesture, from waist towards the knees.

Don’t mess this one up. The arms are fully extended sideways, then slowly moved upward above the head until the forearms cross. The arms may also be moved repeatedly across the head, with the speed indicating the desired urgency of the braking action.

An emergency stop is when the arms are abruptly extended upwards until the arms are crossed above the head.

This one always reminds me of some vaudevillian silent movie villain indicating “it’s curtains“. In this one, one arm is extended forward of the body at shoulder level, bent at the elbow so that the hand extends to the other shoulder, and the hand is drawn horizontally in a slicing motion across the throat, with the palm held downwards.

I doubt you’ll need to use this one, it’s kind of like a gentle “shoo” as the arms are raised upward from the sides.

More likely, you’ll see this used as the signal to set the brakes. With arms extended, palms facing inwards, and swung together so the thumbs are extended towards each other, this can be done with the arms at waist level; or at night, with lighted wands pointed towards each other and arms upraised and then brought together so the wands touch. (Another variation is simply one upraised arm with the palm open, then, after eye contact is made, the open palm is made into a fist. The reverse of this, opening the fist, is for brake release.)

A circular motion of the right hand at head level, and the other arm pointing at the appropriate engine. (If you have only one, I suppose this becomes a bit academic.) Or the circular motion can be a pantomime of a cowboy swinging a lasso more vertically above the head, but you get the flick here.

This one, which you probably won’t see very often passes you off to the “next marshaller“. It involves both arms pointed upward, moved outward to the sides, and then pointed in the direction of the next taxi area or marshaller. Another version uses one arm down and the other simply moved across the body and extended in the desired direction.

The right arm can be raised at the elbow, facing forward. Or it can simply be a salute or brief waving motion, as in, “goodbye“.

Hardware: The final image shows what the illuminated wands look like.

First, a brief and patronizing commercial: If I were half my age and just getting started in the world all over again — and I’d gladly endure the latter to be the former — I would most likely be looking upon the line crew at my local airport with an entirely different pair of eyes. Face it: can an airport function without them? Many other positions are equally critical, but it is the line crew whose presence provides businesses with safety and satisfied customers.

BOTTOM LINE: Some of these signals, one might argue, do seem a bit archaic, stilted, or just plain counterintuitive. But learn the signals and give them a chance to do their jobs so that those who use them can function without concern that we’re going to Cuisinart them!