Harrie and Heino – A Two-Man KLM Towing Team

Aircraft aren’t allowed to reverse unsupervised at Schiphol. But they certainly don’t only move forward when taxiing. All pushback manoeuvres are handled by a 140-strong team at KLM Towing Services. People like Harrie en Heino, who use their tug to give planes a nudge in the right direction. I spent a day on the job with them.

It’s 06.00 and still dark when I report for duty at Schiphol and pick up my bright-yellow vest and heavy-duty boots. Harrie Lenzen has been with KLM for 36 years, and Heino Timmerman has racked up 26 years. They still get a kick out of their work.


Handheld terminal with assignments

“What makes your job so special?”, I ask them. “It’s different every day,” says Harrie. “It never gets boring. We start the day by checking our planning computer, even though we know things will have often changed within half an hour. Aviation is all about flexibility, so that’s something we all have in common. We keep checking the handheld terminal to see which towing assignments pop up. The first is an Airbus A330, which we have to tow from Gate D3 to Hangar 11 for maintenance”.


650 HP under the hood

We head over to our vehicle for the day: one of KLM’s 17 heavy-duty tugs. This behemoth, the AM500, has massive wheels, 650 HP under the hood, and can carry 50,000 kilos.


Two giant clamps encircle the nose wheels of the A330 and lift the plane off the ground with ease. The clamps look like the pincers of a mammoth crab.

While Harrie takes the wheel of the AM500, Heino is up in the cockpit. This is a two-man operation. While Heino prepares things in the cockpit, Harrie handles communications with Apron Control. “They need to know where we are at all times. We’re in constant contact with the tower via our transponder (much like a GPS tracking device; Ed.)”
Heino releases the plane’s brakes and, with the aid of a bypass-steering pin inserted in the hydraulics system of the nose wheel (see photo), Harrie takes over the steering.

We receive clearance from Apron Control and start towing. There are traffic signs and flashing red and orange lights everywhere. Rain is pelting the tug’s windscreen. It’s as if we’re setting off on a rollercoaster ride, but Harrie remains cool, calm and professionally collected. He manoeuvres the plane as if he’s towing a caravan. “The first metres are pretty heavy going, but once we’re rolling, we’re rolling.”

Things are busy at the airport, with planes on the taxiways and flights taking off and landing. That means Harrie has to stay in touch with Apron Control constantly via his headset.

“Tower, good morning, this is Alpha-Kilo-Bravo.” (we’re towing the PH-AKB, which means we use the last letters of registration as our call sign).
“Alpha-Kilo-Bravo: Echo5 West, Runway 18 Left, Cross 36 Romeo.”
After a series of brief exchanges in this alien language, we are allowed to cross the runway.


Twenty-five minutes later, we arrive at Hangar 11. We transfer the plane to a colleague with a different tug, who pushes the plane into the hangar. Our job here is done.

Boeing 747 pushback

We receive our next assignment. A Boeing 747 has to be pushed back from the gate to the taxiway. The plane is ready for departure. This is a single-man pushback, which means Heino can handle it alone. Heino inserts the bypass-steeing pin and hooks up the communications cable between the cockpit and the tug, so that he can maintain contact with the pilots. He then completes a number of other procedures, including the pre-departure check, which means inspecting the contours of the plane one last time, to see whether all the doors and hatches are properly closed.

He then informs the cockpit via his headset: “Pre-departure check completed.” We’re ready for pushback. The clamps encircle the nose wheel again and the tug carefully lifts the Boeing. We push the Jumbo back around 250 metres, to the point where the engines can be started. First the two on the left, and then the two on the right. I’ve never been this close to running engines. The noise is deafening!

Heino gets the signal “You may disconnect”. He removes the bypass-steering pin and the communications cable before driving away from the plane. I see him waving to the cockpit with both hands. What a nice guy!


When I tell him so, he laughs. “It may seem that way, but I’m actually giving the cockpit crew the all-clear and showing them the pin, which I have just removed, so that they know they have control of the steering. This is the last moment of visual contact with the crew. All in the interests of safety.”

Towing and pushing aren’t the only things tug drivers do at KLM. They also move stairways around and connect and disconnect gate bridges. In the winter, Heino is a volunteer de-icing driver and sprayer. Harrie is also a towing instructor, training new staff.


The training for all-round tug driver lasts around 21 months. Theory, practical training and solo driving are alternated with exams and airport test. Every two year, the drivers have to have to pass three exams. Operators are permitted to tow and push a maximum of seven different aircraft types, because they need to know their way around the different cockpits of all these types.

Hats off to these KLM specialists!

This is the first blog in “The ABC of KLM” where KLM employees show you their day to day work.

Posted by:   Rogier Reker  | 
Join the conversation Show comments

Jan Smit

Laatst de post gezien over de Boeing 787, ik zag dat daar weer een trekstang was aangebracht, wat is de reeden daarvan? Waarom werd deze ook niet gelift, door de trekker? Zodat er geen trekstang hoeft te worden aangebracht?


Hi Jan,

Voordat de 787 “Towbarless” afgehandeld mag worden moet een zogenaamde NTO (No Technical Objections) uitgevoerd worden, tijdens deze tests kijkt een team van Boeing, KLM Engineering & Maintenance, KLM Aircraft Towing en GMH (Fabrikant van de trekkers) of de trekker in geen enkel geval schade kan veroorzaken aan het toestel.

Een NTO kan wel een paar weken in beslag nemen voordat alle partijen het eens zijn, daarna moeten de trekkers nog stuk voor stuk aangepast worden voor de 787 (software upgrades etc…) Tot die tijd zal de 787 dus nog wel met een ouderwetse Towbar afgehandeld worden.

Laatste wat ik hoorde loopt de NTO, geen idee wanneer die voltooid is of moet zijn :)

Ruben Koopman

I did my internship at KLM engineering and maintenance. So i had a lot off contact with the towing service great guys with a good sense of humor !

Rogier Reker

Hey Ruben, lucky you! It was a fun day for me!


Is there a possibility for Horses? want HoY the Horse from the prince take with me. Is there a special Cargo en tree? And what are the cost if I want to take my whole Stal with 21 Horses with me? Thank YoY.

Rogier Reker

Good morning Andement, our social media service agents will get back on your question. Enjoy your day.


We only do direct business with specialised horse agents. They can arrange the trucking to and from the airport, the necessary documents and the booking for you. More information can be found via http://klmf.ly/1CHLJfE.


Met stip op een!! De allerleukste en liefste mannen van heel Schiphol!! ❤️

Rogier Reker

Ze lezen mee Jolet;-)

Frank van der Voet

This promises to be a most interesting series, the ABC’s of KLM. From a passenger’s eye, the pushback seems simple enough; I had no idea of the length of training involved. It all makes sense though as a mistake just prior to disconnect would be a huge headache.

Rogier Reker

Thank you Frank, this is exactly the goal of this blog series. Very glad you liked it.


Kunnen ze in Londen nog iets van leren ….
3 weken geleden pushback driver op Heathrow na de pushback tegen de neus van ons vliegtuig aangereden

Joseph B. Cassidy, III

A complicated job in comparison to my work, but none-the-less appreciated, to keep things rolling along. Thanks for sharing.

Rogier Reker

Good morning Joseph, glad you liked it, and we’ll be sharing more stories soon, so keep posted.

Brian Franklin

Well done KLM an interesting insight into some of the less well known, but extremely important roles your staff perform. Let’s hope the entire series gets the attention it deserves.

Rogier Reker

Hi Brian, I’ll cross my fingers as well. We have some interesting interviews planned… #keepposted

Neil Coppell

Brilliant! I love these blogs. It gives a great insight into what goes on behind the scenes of a major, national airline. Keep them coming!

Rogier Reker

We’ll do that Sir;-)

Amilton Muniz

Hats off to you ,towing brothers.


KLM doet erg zijn best om de wereld meer te laten zien van de luchtvaart. Het is zo “vanzelfsprekend” om een vliegtuig in te stappen en op je bestemming weer uit te stappen.
Je vergeet vooral wat er allemaal achter de schermen gebeurd. Top dat dit zo kenbaar gemaakt wordt. Keep up the good work!

Rogier Reker

Fijn Robin, blij dat je het ook zo ziet.


Just read your blog and how interesting this work is.
My question how can someone apply for such an interesting training.
l leave here in Netherland.
Thank you
Peter Dapaah

Rogier Reker

Hello Peter, you might want to check this url: https://klm.heeft-vacatures.nl/ Good luck!


Leuk die blogs, ga zo door. Blijft elke keer weer leuk om te lezen. Zoveel werk gaat er aan je voorbij terwijl je zelf al weer met je hoofd in de wolken zit onderweg naar de bestemming. Binnenkort weer even terug naar Nederland met KLM city hopper. Toch weer even Nederlands doen ook al woon ik in Noorwegen.

Herrera Martin

I Am interesting in be part of KLM team
Fligh atendant…
Enjoyed some experience been a ramp lead on SNA for Alaska,.. 737- 400 700s
And TWA 757 tows and servised,..
7 years.
Now forging aluminum parts for aircratfs
Boing and airbus.
I liked to be back to the ramp or inflaigth servises…
Thank you….
Hope some info where can applay. For that please..

Hablo Español
Speak English too.


Thank you very much for posting this. It’s a wonderful view into the ground operations and the crews who keep it all running smoothly. Very interesting!



Jeffrey Speltie



Great blogpost, enjoyed reading it :-) I’m just curious if there are any women in tug&tow field at KLM. Really, this might be an exciting job.

Mark Dearden

Very interesting article and informative. The 21 months of training for a pushback tug operator, is that from rookie? And does this cover just towbarless operations? Do KLM have a training school or is the training on-th-job with experienced guys?

Lary Cook

This is something new I came across really loved reading it! I never knew you need towing trucks for aeroplanes. So? you guys have a training school I would like to know how do you recruit people into your team?

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