Straker: Marshal of the tarmac

By Ed Brock

Amidst the tightly organized chaos that swirls below passengers boarding and disembarking from the AirTran planes at the gates of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Ricardo Straker is in his element.

When the plane comes in 35-year-old Straker is the "marshal" who works with two "wing-walkers" to direct the pilot to a safe stop with the crossing of his two orange wands.

About a half an hour later, Straker pushes the plane back out onto the taxiway before the jet engines roar to life. It's a job he's been doing for five years now.

"I'm enjoying it so far," Straker said.

Before moving to Jonesboro Straker worked as a cable technician in New York.

"I came out here and a friend told me about AirTran, an up and coming company," Straker said. "I decided to join the bandwagon."

At first he started with the simpler job of wing-walker. Wing-walkers walk along the side of the plane and communicate with the marshal with their own wands, said Alonza Pettiford, the ramp manager over Straker.

"When they see an issue they put an X up and it stops the aircraft," Pettiford said.

With fuel carts, baggage carts, airplane "tugs" and other vehicles in constant motion in the ramp area, Pettiford said there is always the possibility of a collision. And the marshal and his crew, along with the other 10 or 15 ramp workers, have to watch out for their own safety when parking AirTran's Boeing 717s and larger 737s.

"Particularly with the 737 because there's the possibility of engine ingestion," Pettiford said.

Engine ingestion is what happens when something gets too close to the intake of the 737's low-slung, engine mounted engines.

"Things like you," Pettiford said. "Sometimes it pulls the cap off somebody's head and eats it."

After years of training that led him to the position of leader that he now holds, Straker has gotten good at keeping out of harm's way.

"The thing is paying attention," Straker said. "You've got to be excited, you've got to want to do (the job.)"

Plus there's the constant training during which they are reminded of the ways to stay safe while servicing nine to 11 planes a day at two separate ramps.

But along with the danger there's the discomfort that comes with working outside year round.

"You get the snow and the rain," Straker said.

The hours can be long, too.

"We do a lot of overtime," Straker said. "If they call us and they need us, we'll be there. AirTran is like a family."

Straker long ago earned the option of moving to another position in the company.

"I chose to stay on the ramp," Straker said.