SuperTug lifting a Boeing 767 (YouTube)

Driving the pushback itself is pretty intimidating the first few times you do it. You're sitting there in this tractor-on-steroids, dwarfed by a massive jet that likely cost anywhere from $40-320 million. But the overall concept is pretty simple when driving a pushback with a towbar. The direction you turn your steering wheel will turn the tail of the plane in the same direction. I've pushed hundreds of planes, and it's kind of a fun power trip, because even though the pilots might make 4 times what I do, they're still at my mercy for those few minutes.

There is one major difference between a pushback and a SuperTug (also known as a high-speed tug). While the regular pushback attaches to the plane's nose gear via a tow bar, while the SuperTug actually pulls up to the nose gear, wraps itself around the gear and lifts the nose of the plane off the ground (see the video above). I've never driven a SuperTug, but their strength and speed has always impressed me.


SuperTugs are used for a couple of purposes. They push the biggest planes, like the 747 or A380 away from the gate. Or they can be used to tow planes for longer distances. For example, at some of the big international airports, airlines share gates. If an international airline has a 8:00AM arrival but doesn't leave until 6:00PM, that plane might be towed by a SuperTug off to a remote parking spot called a stand, so that the gate can be used for other arrivals and departures during that time.

Next time you're at the airport, pay a little closer attention to the vehicles you see driving around. Airlines hang onto vehicles (and planes) for a very long time, and you could easily see some trucks and vans from the 1970s. If the airport is a big hub for the airline, a special crew of Ground Service Equipment (GSE) mechanics keep these things up and running, while saving money for airlines. If you ask someone within the airlines why they hang on to planes and vehicles for so long, the answer is simple: "They're paid for."


All photos are by the author, Paul Thompson, unless otherwise noted.