Anyone who’s hangared an airplane using a hand tow knows it’s tricky. Using a towbar connected to a tug is even trickier, because of the extra pivot point. Yet the folks who do it every day make it look easy.
They’ve had practice. Two of them, Ernest “Bubba” Atkins, 71, and Ron Brown, 58, have been moving and servicing planes at FCI since 1973 and 1981, respectively. When Dominion took over the FBO from the county in 1991, they became Dominion employees. Today they’re the company’s longest-serving employees, aside from CEO Mike Mickel.
Both were experienced when they arrived. Atkins had been moving airplanes at Richmond International for 17 years and Brown had worked the flight line in the Army.
Both have trained a lot of new hands. Towing “takes a while to learn,” Atkins said. “The hardest part is backing up,” added Brown.
It’s an exacting skill, because a minor slip can cause expensive repair and downtime. When moving large aircraft, and often when moving small aircraft, too, Dominion crews use a spotter in addition to the driver.
The airport has changed over the years, the two can tell you. There used to be a glider operation, Brown recalled, and no jets, Atkins added. “The state police helicopter was the only thing on the field that took jet fuel. When Mike [Mickel, of Dominion Aviation] took over we started getting jets.”
Atkins and Brown work alternate weeks, weekends and evenings. Brown also works at Enthalpy Analytical, a cigarette-testing laboratory. Atkins is retired from Borgwaldt, which makes machinery for the tobacco industry.
Brown earned a pilot’s license in 1986, but said he doesn’t fly much anymore. In spare time, he enjoys hunting and fishing. Atkins likes to fish and to make an occasional trip to a casino. Both have grown children.
“I met Bubba when I was 10 years old,” Mickel recalled. “That was when my mother was taking flying lessons at Richmond International.
“When we took over the FBO, a lot of things changed. But through it all, Ron and Bubba kept the line service running smoothly. I’ll always be grateful for the job they’ve done, then and since.”