Behind the scenes with United Airlines

What happens when scores of aviation enthusiasts are given access to a behind-the-scenes experience with the largest airline in the world? Something roughly like this. From operating the deicing trucks to climbing inside cargo bins to walking the wing out and saluting the pilot to send a plane off, we got to do a little bit of everything. And it was an absolute blast!

I was fortunate to be one of a couple hundred guests of United Airlines at their hub operations in Chicago‘s O’Hare airport. More than two hundred of their employees volunteered to take us around the facility, showing us pretty much everything involved in moving hundreds of thousands of passengers through the airport on a given day.

The first stop for my group was a maintenance hangar where there were a dozen or so different stations set up with most of the ground handling equipment available for us to use. As the door to the bus opened the guide said, "Go pick a truck" and we were off. I headed straight to the deicing trucks. What ensued was a 20 minute training session from two senior ramp agents, covering everything from the types of fluids to the mix ratios to actually getting into the cab on the boom arm and climbing up into the sky.

At the controls, ready to spray

The controls are more or less a video game. There are two pedals, a toggle switch for each hand and a three-axis joystick for each hand. Incredibly complicated but also surprisingly easy to get the hang of. And this wasn’t just a quick in-and-out on the gear. The rampers I was working with made sure I got to see the full range of capabilities from the truck. They had me "washing" the fence, practicing as though it was an airplane wing. And they insisted that I take the cab up to the highest possible range, simulating work on the tail of a wide-body aircraft. Plus some awesome views.

 Great views from a fully extended deicing boom

 Me and my deicing truck

Next up we headed inside the hangar. There was a 757 on hand, opened up for us to inspect and explore. There were also a few tables covered in spare parts. And price tags. The brakes assembly for a 747-400 comes in at just under $50,000. And there are 14 of them on the plane. Oh, and they have to be replaced every so often. A cockpit voice recorder will run you about $8,500.

 The cockpit voice recorder, a/k/a

We were given reasonably free rein to explore the plane in the hangar. The cockpit is always a fun place to explore but, for me, the baggage hold was a bit more interesting. Go figure.

I do love baggage compartments

Next up was a demonstration of the emergency slide deployment. It was a rather dramatic few seconds of activity, to say the least. Check the video for the full version.

Action shot of the slide deploying

 Anyone want to slide down??

We also ended up out on the active ramp for a couple flights. We were a bit less involved on this part but we still got to participate. Getting to work as a wing walker was a lot of fun, though I do have to wonder what the passengers were thinking as it took five people to do the job of one. Plus we were all taking photos the whole time.


And then the afternoon wrapped up. It was an incredible experience. I did a similar event a year ago in Tampa and that one was amazing. This was even better. Hard to believe, but it is true.

A bunch more photos online in the gallery here.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Wow, that looked like it was a lot of fun. As interesting and cool as the NOC tour was, I’m beginning to wonder if I should have chosen the airport ops instead. Ahh well, maybe for SMD5?

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