Tim Fulton on the ramp at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport after the first “full-turn” test of his portable baggage conveyor. A past president of the Sitka School Board, Fulton hopes to manufacture TISABAS locally one day. “We’ve got to change the culture around manufacturing in Alaska and create jobs,” he says. After a thirty-year career working in aircraft bellies, Fulton has a litany of injuries — including 2 shoulder surgeries —  common among his colleagues on the ramp. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The job of loading baggage on airplanes is hard, but it doesn’t have to be harmful.

In Sitka, a baggage handler — or “ramper,” as they’re known in the airline business — has designed and built a piece of equipment he hopes revolutionizes the way luggage moves inside an airplane, and spares the people who move it a lifetime of pain.

As part of the CoastAlaska series “Alaska Made,” KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports on the aviation entrepreneur behind “Ramper Innovations.”

Downloadable audio.

On the ramp at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport…

I’m out on the ramp at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport, waiting with ramper Tim Fulton for the arrival of Alaska Airlines Flight 53. It’s a nice day in mid summer. Overcast. Not raining.

KCAW – So, thirty years of standing here waiting for planes to show up.
Fulton – Laughs.
KCAW – Do you have butterflies in your stomach?
Fulton – Not anymore.

Fulton (r.) and his work partner Craig Langenfeld load TISABAS onto the belt loader, in anticipation of the arrival of Alaska Flight 53. Weighing about 102 pounds, the portable conveyor is designed to be the first item up the belt to the plane, and the last thing out. TISABAS runs on batteries now, but will eventually be powered by the belt loader vehicle. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

53 circles low over Sitka Sound and touches down, trailing ribbons of mist from its wingtips. Standing out here as the Boeing 737-800 pulls up to the gate is a trip — but the only place I’m going today is inside the belly of this beast.

Flight 53 arriving at the gate…
KCAW – This is my first time. Pretty cool…

I climb up the belt loader and into the aft belly with Fulton, and his partner today, Craig Langenfeld.

Inside the aft belly of Flight 53…
Fulton – Let’s try this first!

This is where Fulton’s device will see its first full-turn trial — unloading, then loading this luggage bin.

Before I explain how the invention works, you should take a look at where it works. The aft belly is a dimly-lit tunnel, about 25 feet long in this particular aircraft, and just a little over three feet high. The luggage is all piled toward the front. It’s not at all what I pictured. The rampers divide this space into areas called “pits.”

KCAW – You know, just speaking as a passenger I’ve always imagined that you guys were walking down here, shelving bags like library books. This is just the trunk of your car times 100. And you’re just trying to get things to fit any way you can.
Fulton – Yeah.
Craig Langenfeld – Try and load the trunk of your car from inside your car.
KCAW – Loading your trunk from the inside! Right!

Watching rampers work brings to mind country singer Dave Carroll’s viral YouTube hit United Breaks Guitars.

Song: United Breaks Guitars, by Dave Carroll

In Singer/songwriter Dave Carroll’s viral YouTube hit United Breaks Guitars, rampers are shown gleefully throwing instruments across the tarmac. In reality, with thousands of pounds of weight to move on and off every plane, the work is more grueling than gleeful. (YouTube capture)

But having seen them in action, it’s obvious that to a ramper, your bag — your clothing, your fish, your tools, or even your Taylor Guitar — is just weight. Weight that has to be pushed or tossed, and stacked on a pile that begins far from the doorway — by two people working on their knees. Today, flight 53 carries a relatively light load in the aft belly, only 2,300 pounds.

There is a lot more at risk here than guitars.

“Forward bending is challenging on the spine,” said physical therapist Eric Speck. “Twisting is challenging on the spine, and lifting is challenging. When you combine all three you have the perfect storm of forces for the low back.”

Speck has treated a lot of rampers in over two decades of his Sitka practice. I show him a video of Fulton’s device in action in the belly of flight 53. He thinks it will be a game changer for the team that loads your plane.

“It changes the person who first receives the bag on their knees,” said Speck, “having to accelerate it down the plane, which is a huge twisting moment on the low back, rotating and sending it down the plane. And now he just has to place it there, and the belt is going to take it down. That’s a very big difference.”

Video: Full-turn test of TISABAS, June 29, 2018

In Fulton’s shop…
Fulton – I have the belts tracking. (Turns TISABAS on.)

Working out of his garage — a fully-equipped machine shop, actually — Tim Fulton has designed and built “TISABAS,” short for TIm SAves BAckS. A lightweight, collapsible, conveyor belt that can take the heaviest bag you could ever pack.

Fulton troubleshoots a TISABAS prototype in his garage shop. A local aluminum fabricator made the frames for the conveyor, and many of the smaller parts Fulton picked up at the local hardware and automotive store. He tried outsourcing some components to China, but was disappointed. “Their stuff was junk,” he says. “With the right parts and the right people, we could make this anywhere in Alaska.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

KCAW – So how much weight can it hold?
Fulton – It was designed to take 150 pounds per square foot. That’s what it’s engineered for.

So a conveyor belt is nothing new, but the TISABAS conveyor folds up in sections — like an accordion — to fit inside a plane’s belly doors. And then it extends or retracts, depending on whether the task is loading or unloading. Each time Fulton lowers one of the sections of TISABAS into position, the belt in that section automatically starts. And when he raises it, the belt stops. A switch reverses the belt’s direction.

Fulton has already built and sold rollers used by Alaska Airlines to load fish boxes in their planes, but regular luggage was a struggle. It was like “pushing them on a rutted road.”

“And I got to the point where probably twenty prototypes into a roller that would do this job,” he said, “and it just wasn’t meeting the force reduction that I was looking for. And that’s when I came up with idea of a folding belted system.”

Back at the airport, the first full trial of TISABAS has been brilliant. Fulton and Langenfeld turned around luggage in the aft belly just a little faster than their colleagues forward — but Fulton, with two shoulder surgeries and a painful hip, says his back is doing just fine.

But how do the other rampers feel?  One ramper I spoke with who hadn’t seen the trial was concerned that TISABAS — or similar technology — would cost jobs on the ramp, and that airlines might adopt it to cut costs, rather than to save backs.  Another, third-year ramper Evan Sutton, was more upbeat. “It went well,” he said. “I felt like they had a good rhythm, and they kept up with the belt (loader). That’s all we really wanted.”

An airline may assign a third person to load in the aft belly of longer aircraft, like the Boeing 737-900, but these rampers say that most of the time there are only two. My official guide for this visit to Flight 53 is veteran ramper Bob Weaver. Having suffered injuries to his elbow and shoulder, he sees promise in TISABAS.

Weaver – I was impressed. This was the first time I’ve seen it in action and it worked a lot better than I expected, to be honest with you, Tim. That guy at the door has got to throw the bag from here to there. I mean it’s hard. Especially on the floors. Some of the floors slide well. Some bags slide well. Other bags don’t slide well.
KCAW – Do you want to use this opportunity to tell the listening public what kind of bag we should get?
Weaver – (Laughs) Small.
Fulton – Well, with TISABAS coming on, it doesn’t matter…
Weaver – People bring too much stuff. You don’t need high heels in Alaska!

The brain behind TISABAS is the electronic control system: Only the belts that are horizontal on the aircraft’s floor turn on during loading. When they’re folded up they stop automatically. Fulton says he interviewed about a dozen engineering firms before settling on a company in Boise, Idaho, to design the motors and switches. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Tim Fulton’s new company “Ramper Innovations” hopes to sell TISABAS for around $40,000 each — about 20-percent of the cost of his closest competitor. Fulton has already begun conversations over possible licensing deals. Ramper Innovations was one of five businesses chosen by the aviation business accelerator AeroInnovate for its “Class of 2018.”

“I got this,” says Fulton after the successful trial. “I’ve got proof of concept.” The next step: connecting with investors. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

What happened inside the belly of flight 53 today has been a long time in coming.

“Right now, my thought is, ‘I got this,'” he said. “I’ve got the proof of concept. Get some investors, help me take it to the next stage. This one is basically all mine. I know it, I know what has to be fixed. I got this.”

And his distribution plan is simple: He’ll load TISABAS as cargo — collect to airports all over the world — in the belly of planes just like this one.