Time, to Tow

posted on 23rd June 2020
Time, to Tow

Combining simplicity and convenience, the AVTRAC is new low-cost, electrically-driven aircraft towing unit from the UK’s JES Machinery. Company owner Jason Gardner explains its potential

Very little in aviation appears simple. Aircraft tend to be complex by nature, demanding intricate procedures for their safe operation and comprehensive technical support and specialist equipment for maintaining and moving them when they aren’t in the air. Since the majority of business jets are on the ground for many more hours than they fly, safe, efficient ground handling is an important, yet easily overlooked aspect of operations.

Electric aircraft tugs are not new, but few are as simple to operate and maintain as the AVTRAC from JES Machinery. It’s a pedestrian-operated machine that JES owner Jason Gardner says is ready to run ‘out of the box’, and so intuitive that users are comfortable with it after no more than an hour’s training.

Capable of moving aircraft weighing up to 10,000kg and compatible with single- or twin-wheel nose gear without modification, the AVTRAC uses a ‘scoop’ system that gently lifts the wheel from front and rear. The aircraft tyre is held just a few centimetres off the ground, while a manually-actuated locking rear gate ensures the nose gear remains securely engaged throughout the movement process.

Gardner is predictably enthusiastic about the product, but so are his customers, among them Chris Beer, Director of XLR Executive Jet Centres, which has FBOs at the UK’s Birmingham, Bournemouth, Exeter and Liverpool airports. “When we were setting up the newest addition to the XLR Jet Centre group, at Bournemouth, we needed a versatile, lightweight piece of GSE capable of towing smaller business jets around our parking ramp. We trialled the AVTRAC and found it completely changed the way we would normally move aircraft; it meant we could control the tow more precisely and move aircraft safely at low speed. The price was very reasonable for the capability and within ten days we’d taken delivery and had the equipment in use.”

Other operators have reported easy compatibility with the PC-12, where some tugs struggle, given the limited clearance between the aircraft’s propeller and hangar floor, while the AVTRAC also lends itself to smaller business jets equipped with shorter undercarriage legs. Proving its capability further, the AVTRAC has even been tested against the Hawker Hunter T7, a training version of a 1950s’ fighter jet weighing around 8,000kg and featuring a particularly awkward gear door arrangement.

On the other hand, versatile and cost effective though the AVTRAC is, Gardner explains that it came into the JES portfolio through a convoluted route and if it is to see the global success it deserves, then a distribution partner is the logical next step.

“We were approached by a GSE company that had seen the original AVTRAC concept and wanted to add it to their product line. We agreed to manufacture it for them and redesigned it ready for sale. But then the company reorganised and decide the AVTRAC didn’t fit into its revised portfolio. I’d invested heavily in the redesign and now I was left with a great product, but suited to a market that JES had never expected to serve.”

Since JES understands the AVTRAC intimately and specialises in manufacturing, the baseline product is also highly customisable according to customer requirement. One potential operator asked for a longer handle to provide further improved reach, for example, while Gardner says the unit could be scaled to suit lighter or heavier aircraft too. Finishing the AVTRAC with operator logos or customising it with corporate colours is also easily achieved.

The AVTRAC has been designed for simplicity and Gardner says the focus was always on achieving maximum efficiency at a low price point. “The operator needs to crouch down and close the rear gate behind the nosewheel, for example,” he says. “We’ve been asked if that can be automated. Of course it can, but it adds cost and complexity.” He has so far resisted building a remotely-controlled version for the same reason but, again, says it could be done.
“Also, we’ve built the AVTRAC using off-the-shelf components. That’s why the electronic control panels are from Curtis Instruments and any problems therefore easily fixed, although customers find the unit very reliable.”

Looking to the future, Gardner believes JES is well placed to manufacture the AVTRAC for a global audience. “Curtis Instruments is a US company, which means replacement electronics are easily sourced. We manufacture most of the AVTRAC ourselves, which means we have control over replacement parts. Under the right agreement, we could also supply drawings to other engineering shops, or kits of components for repairs or even complete units.”

For now, Gardner finds himself in an interesting position. The AVTRAC is proving itself an excellent machine in daily service with UK bizjet operators and at least one owner pilot operating a piston aircraft from a home hangar. It offers an ideal basis for bespoke modification, requires little maintenance and comes at an attractive price, but Gardner recognises that if AVTRAC is to move into the global market place, then finding a partner ready to provide international sales and training support is the essential next step in its development.