Facilities veteran Dick Cloud knows what goes into parking a plane
Author Pete Rapalus
Almost by accident, a young Dick Cloud found himself dealing with a new and revolutionary piece of airport equipment called a jet bridge, and he quickly became the in-house expert on how the invention can efficiently and gracefully link fixed terminals and mobile aircraft.
While Cloud’s efforts have touched millions of customers over five decades, he and his colleagues are largely unseen by customers. Within United and in the industry, however, he is legendary for his wealth of knowledge, photographic memory, troubleshooting and people skills, and eagerness to share what he’s learned.
Cloud’s expertise and experience with airport facilities and ground equipment go way beyond jet bridges. Ten years ago, he was our go-to guy when we needed immediate help making Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans functional for evacuation flights days after Hurricane Katrina, and he continued in a similar capacity for weeks afterward, getting our gates ready for regular service. As safety and engineering manager for our Facilities Operations group, he also played key roles in more major projects than we could possibly list, including making our gates ready for new aircraft, from the Boeing 747 in the early 1970s right up to the Boeing 787 in 2012.
Facilities Management co-worker Andrew Alexander recalls how Cloud prepared gates at O’Hare for the first 787 arrivals having never worked hands-on with the airplane—just with specifications. “When the plane arrived, I was amazed at how perfectly everything lined up,” Alexander says. “It could not have been drawn with any more accuracy than Dick’s layout.”
Using gates and jet bridges for different aircraft types can be tricky; it’s not as simple as “one size fits all,” like a garage that can handle a sports car and a pickup truck. Jet bridges must move along precise paths that take into account not only the plane and its boarding door but also the location of fuel pits, ground power and air hoses, as well as the various loaders, service carts and other vehicles that swarm around a gated airliner. Cloud not only helps existing United gates get ready for different types of aircraft, he also sets up gates and trains ground personnel at new destinations (like Chengdu, China) or renovated facilities (like San Francisco’s new Boarding Area E).
“His knowledge of aircraft, airport terminal and ground service equipment requirements is unparalleled by anyone working in the industry today,” Alexander says. “He is a walking encyclopedia of the airline industry.” In Cloud’s case, ‘walking’ isn’t quite right; in the field, he routinely wears out younger co-workers, putting in miles a day bounding from gate to gate on the ramps and through the concourses.
“Dick works tirelessly to make sure that all of the airports that are slated to receive new aircraft have been checked and double-checked to ensure the ramp markings and jet bridges are ready,” says Airport Transformation Project Manager Amy Pratt, who has worked with Cloud on numerous airport renovations and transformations.
Back in 1965, Cloud, fresh out of the U.S. Air Force, landed a United ramp service job he intended to keep only until a union electrician apprenticeship opened up. By the time one had, he was settled in as a facilities mechanic. In those days, he dealt with five different aircraft types, and there were fewer gates that used jet bridges. Now, he and his team have to handle as many as 27 different types of planes that pull up to hundreds of United gates worldwide.
“That’s fine,” Cloud says of the challenge, “because I love my job and have loved coming to work every day for many years. I love to do technical things and solve problems. I am going to do whatever I can do to improve things, since every single thing we do can be improved.”