Same Time, Same Place, Same Level – Chapter 7

About sheep, grass and airplanes

Before the time big, heavy airplanes were born, smooth, closely cropped grass growing on compacted, hard ground was the ideal place for a   flying  machine to land. Even to-day, there are happy fellows who operate almost exclusively into and out of grass fields and some of them tend to regard concrete runways as more or less an aberration… Who knows, they might have a point.

On the other hand, there is just no way to land a Boeing 747 on grass, leastways, if you are planning to take off again. This is where those early, Russian designs seem to have had a definite advantage. It was not unheard of for a Tupolev 154 to land on grass or frozen tundra when nothing else was available. However, for “real”  flying , especially for operations in adverse weather conditions like reduced visibility and low clouds, a hard surface runway is an indispensable asset. To make the best of both worlds, there were, and still are, airports around the world where, alongside the instrument runway capable of taking the largest visitors, a grass strip or even a larger grass area is maintained for the benefit of light airplanes and helicopters. Our airport had been one of these.

Of course, anything aircraft will land on needs careful maintenance. Your average superhighway is a definitely neglected backyard compared to the attention runways get. No loose pieces of paper, chips of rock or stone, snow or ice will be tolerated and an army of specialized machines make sure that the cleaning job is done properly. It is only natural that grass landing areas should receive the same careful attention. The catch is, however, that as yet no one has come up with machines which could do a really good job on grass. While sophisticated lawn-mowers are in use to-day, they don’t come halfway as near to perfection as their predecessors, sheep, could.

An MD80 driver, raised on Phase III simulators, would probably lodge a nasty complaint if he were to find sheep grazing peacefully next to the runway, but back in the days of the DC-3, pilots did not seem to mind. As they well knew, a flock of sheep could do an admirable job of keeping the grass landing area in tip-top shape. First of all, sheep cropped the grass to just the right height and did this with unparalleled precision. Secondly, their busy little feet compacted the soil to a hard, weight-bearing surface. And they did all this in a single smooth operation, at the same time refueling themselves. Now that is what I call efficiency.

At Budapest airport, an old shepherd, sporting a mustache right out of a fairly tail, his sheepdog, a Hungarian puli with intelligent eyes always hidden behind a curtain of curly black fur, and a flock of merino sheep managed to integrate perfectly into the world of whirring propellers and the smell of high-octane petrol. They always kept out of the way of approaching planes and provided a nice, rural touch to the mechanical world around them.

As traffic increased over the years, so did the concern that one day an aircraft will land in the middle of this silent crowd. Following several meetings with airport management, it was decided that a portable radio transceiver be issued to the old man so that the tower could inform him of the landing direction in use, thus helping him to get out of trouble’s path. That he should be banned from the field had not even been considered. Good old days, those…

The old shepherd, mustache waxed and shiny as ever, eyed the strange little box of tricks and the multitude of push buttons with suspicion. His unease increased further when a metallic voice crackled from the speaker, politely inquiring if he could hear the transmission. In spite of the initial hesitation, though, it took him only a few minutes to learn the set’s operation and to interpret the instructions that would be coming from it. So he returned to his charges with the glow of new found knowledge on his wrinkled, suntanned face.

Next day, when the flock of sheep marched onto the field in their usual close-packed manner, aerodrome controllers watched with interest, eager to see how the old man would go about using the new technology. It had been agreed the day before that the tower would indicate the landing direction in use by referring to the abbreviated magnetic direction, in the same way runways were identified, so that the old shepherd would know which areas to keep away from and what distance to maintain from the concrete runway itself.

As usual, the prevailing wind direction was North-Westerly, so the first message read “Landing direction 31” – indicating that arrivals would be coming from the South-East. The “roger” coming in by way of acknowledgment had a definite East-country accent to it, but nevertheless in a matter of seconds the controllers watching through binoculars could see the little black dog hard at work, chasing the sheep away from danger. In the coming months, the old man never once made a mistake.

Curious how he did it, one of the approach supervisors decided to drive down and see for himself, paying a visit to our shepherd on a fine spring morning. What he found was a perfect chain of command any military type could be proud of. Apparently, the old man had taught his dog what the various key-words from the radio meant in terms of areas safe for grazing. Now, all he had to do was repeat the same words he heard on the transceiver to have the intelligent furry assistant herding the sheep in the right direction. But this was not all. Though lacking sophisticated knowledge (which he did not need in any case), the shepherd was born and grew up a man of nature and to him the direction of the wind, the shape of the clouds or the color of the sky told much, much more than to the average air traffic controller. In a short time he recognized the significance of wind direction and speed and their connection with the direction airplanes were likely to land in.

Thus, when the wind shifted enough to warrant a change in landing direction, he immediately started rearranging the position of his wards. So, in most cases, by the time the warning message came through the radio, he was almost ready to report having completed the right action. He did all this with absolute precision, never too soon, never too late. His heavily accented “roger” was more an act of courtesy than real acknowledgment… In time of course, progress forced the old shepherd and his flock of busy workers out from the airport grounds, their place being taken by machines, bringing less precision and more incidents.

Source by Steve Zerkowitz