Airplane stuck in the mud? American Airlines has a team ready to pull it out

At a practice session, an American Airlines team plucks a MD-80 from the mud. Photo: American Airlines. 

At a practice session, an American Airlines team plucks a MD-80 from the mud. Photo: American Airlines. 

If a plane gets stuck in the mud, do you think an airline just calls a tow truck?

It is much more complicated than that, according to a story that ran in last week's American Airlines employee newsletter. American has a specially-trained team of mechanics and operations employees whose job is to return the aircraft to the ramp. 

“You can’t just pull it out because that could cause more damage,” Alfred Marquez, leader of American’s aircraft recovery team, told the newsletter. "Even if it’s raining or snowing, we never stop until the aircraft has been recovered.”

American has had an aircraft recovery team for about two decades, and it now has about 50 volunteer members. They have to be ready to travel at any time. 

The team practices every other year. At their last session, in September, the team traveled to Puerto Rico, where it intentionally got a MD-80 stuck. 

“We put the left landing gear in mud and tested a turntable system that pivots 360 degrees, which minimizes damage to the fuselage,” Marquez told the employee newsletter. 

It's usually not a particularly high-tech operation, according to American. Here's how the newsletter described a typical solution:

When an airplane overshoots a runway, the first step is usually to start digging. The team uses pneumatic lifting bags to raise the aircraft, enabling recovery teams to move it to safety. The final act is always a tow.

American says the team historically has been used once or twice per year, but the airline is larger now because of its merger with US Airways, so there could be more opportunities in the future. 

Industry-wide, planes get stuck in the mud more often than airlines would like. Sometimes pilots take a wrong turn. Other times they take too wide of a turn. Occasionally, it is the fault of the tug driver, for pushing the airplane into the grass. 

Passengers are often amused.