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Ground Support Equipment (GSE) In The Aviation Industry

We’ve all been at the airport, waiting on our flight. Out the window is an absolute beehive of activity. Trucks with luggage carts roll by, conveyor trucks, fuel trucks, aircraft tugs, and a lot more. Oh, and if you’re flying somewhere cold in the winter? You know that de-icer truck is out there, blasting snow and ice off of the jets. 

All of these are examples of aircraft Ground Support Equipment (GSE). There are two broad categories of GSE that everything falls under:

  1. Powered GSE uses either electrical power or an internal combustion engine to perform its function.
  2. Non-powered GSEs are all items that require no power to perform their function. 

  Let’s take a look at GSE, what functions they perform, and how high-quality GSE improves your bottom line. 

What is Ground Support Equipment in Aviation?

GSE is a universal acronym for all equipment ground crews use to perform all ground functions on the jet. Some of them are simple machines like aircraft maintenance stands. These are used to open panels, inspect items, attach refueling hoses on jets where the single-point refueling nozzles are on the bottom of the wings, and clean windows.

A ground power unit (GPU) in use by the U.S. Air Force

Powered ground support equipment is used for far more complex tasks that range from aircraft movements (aircraft tow tractors), to aircraft ground power units to pressurizing the complex hydraulic systems on the aircraft (hydraulic test stands).

Primary Functions of GSE

The primary function of ground support equipment is to support whatever the aircraft’s mission and purpose is. Obviously, military aircraft require much more specialized ground support equipment for loading munitions, bombs, rockets, missiles, etc. 

For this article, we’ll focus on the more common and generic ground support equipment that is used by nearly all jets, whether military or civil. 

For example, all aircraft need to have their fuel serviced. All aircraft need windows to be clean, all aircraft have panels that must be opened for maintenance or inspection, and all aircraft must be towed from point to point at the airport. 

Aircraft Handling and Movement

Aircraft handling and movement is one of the most basic ground support functions in every airport by every flying and maintenance organization. 

A couple columns of finely tuned jet-towing machines.

Airports are huge places, usually spanning thousands of acres with miles upon miles of taxiways. When an aircraft is down for maintenance or is preparing for maintenance, it is the job of the ground crews to move the aircraft using an aircraft tow tractor. 

Modern commercial airports rely on aircraft tow tractors for every single flight. When a jet pulls up to the jetway, it must be pushed back to the taxiway for the rest of the pre-flight sequence. Many airports and terminals are built this way to optimize space and efficiency. 

There are two main attachment styles for aircraft tugs that are commonly used:

  • Tractor style uses a pintle hitch attached to a towbar, which attaches to the nose landing gear. 
  • Towbarless tugs are the other type. These lift up the nose landing gear, cradling the tires. The tug then moves the aircraft. This system allows for very tight maneuvering but makes for a much more complex tug. 

Passenger and Cargo Handling

Easily confused with aircraft handling and movement is passenger and cargo handling. Depending on the aircraft size, an airport tug can be used for either the aircraft (usually private jets), but it is often used for various purposes on the ramp. 

But airport tugs are far from the only tool used in cargo handling. 

First, let’s talk about passenger handling. 

Hub airport terminals use jetways to load passengers, but this isn’t always possible for smaller regional aircraft. A lot of times, regional aircraft are loaded directly from the apron. Also, when major airliners do fly into smaller regional airports, there will not often be a jetway. 

In these cases, airstairs are used to load and deplane passengers safely. 

Cargo handling is a major part of all airline and airport ground ops, and they have a few unique tools for the job.  

Aircraft Maintenance and Servicing

Keeping jets maintained and serviced is a big job, and it takes reliable, sometimes specialized, equipment to do it. The ground support equipment used for aircraft maintenance and servicing is a mix of both powered and non-powered GSE equipment. 

The most common type of GSE for aircraft maintenance is maintenance stands. These are used every single day by ground crewmen. And it isn’t just maintenance; all kinds of servicing require a stand of one type or another. 

The most common type of powered GSE is easily the ground power unit (GPU). These are used every single time the aircraft is powered on for maintenance and passenger loading, and most jets using SPRs must be powered on to transfer fuel properly. Electrical power is life on a jet, which segues into our next segment. 

Ground Power and Air Conditioning

Ground power really is used almost all the time during ground operations. You need it on for lights, you need it on for navigational system checks, you need it on for refueling. You need it on for basically everything besides an exterior walkaround. 

Just consider the GPU the most universally necessary piece of powered GSE, and it’s not even close. 

Now, air conditioning might be a very close second, depending on where you live. Air conditioning is provided in the air by using bleed air from the engine. However, on the ground, it is not quite so simple. It either needs to be provided by a running auxiliary power unit (APU), which burns a lot of jet fuel and doesn’t really provide that much cooling air, or from an external unit.

There are two ways that a jet can have external air conditioning:

  1. A pit unit, which is piped out from a central air conditioning unit, or
  2. A diesel-powered air conditioning cart. 

What is not as widely known is that air conditioning units are mandatory during some electronics systems power-ups and operation checks. These systems' heat is enough to fry them if cooling air isn’t present. 

Communication and Navigation Support

Again, another segue from the last section. Air conditioning isn’t necessary for all electronic operations or all jets, but it is for some. 

Another interesting piece of equipment for navigational support is the aircraft tow tractor. Weird, right?

It’s for compass calibrations, using the compass rose. The aircraft must be towed around the compass rose to confirm compass accuracy. 

Ground power units are the other mandatory piece of GSE for comms and nav systems. Every single check requires electrical power, and it is much safer, quieter, and far more efficient to operate a pit electrical system or a diesel GPU than running the APU. 

Types of Ground Support Equipment

We’ve covered this already, but two types of ground support equipment are powered and non-powered. 

Powered Equipment

Arguably the most complex equipment and used for various purposes, powered age is used before and after almost every flight and for everything in between. 

Aircraft Tugs and Pushback Tractors

Aircraft tugs are used for every single aircraft movement that isn’t aided by the engines on the airplane. That is thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, daily. Maintenance, repair, and overhaul facilities use aircraft tugs constantly, moving jets in and out of hangars, to designated engine run spots, for compass calibrations, and for about a million other uses.

Airport tugs are the modern day pack mule.


Every flight or military mission starts with the fuel load. Sometimes the fuel must be removed for repairs or because the load is too high. 

Aircraft refuelers are used everywhere. While some airports have pit systems, most airports still use tanker truck. And even the locations with a pit almost always require the use of a pump truck/hydrant vehicle to move the fuel. 

Fuel cabinets are another type of GSE used for refueling, usually smaller jobs where over-wing is done and a smaller pump is necessary. However, SPRs are occasionally used with cabinets. 

Fuel: the lifeblood of flight operations.

Air Start Unit

Commonly called a “start cart,” air start units rely on one of two power options to generate enough high-volume, low-pressure air to spin jet engines. 

The first way is using a small turbine (“jet”) engine and pumping the bleed air through the hose into the engine. 

The second method uses a large diesel engine which drives a huge air compressor and does the same thing. 

Ground Power Unit (GPUs)

There is a difference between an electrical starting unit and a GPU. Electrical start carts are not to be confused with air starting units. Start carts are just a big battery pack on wheels to help smaller jets and turboprops produce enough juice to crank and run their electronic suites simultaneously. 

A GPU is different. It provides enough continuous electrical power to run all of the systems on the jet without engines or APUs running. 

Air Conditioning Units

Air conditioning units are used for two purposes:

  1. To provide cool air for any electronics that need it.
  2. Providing cooling air for the cabin. 

In especially hot environments (Dubai, Pheonix, Houston, Miami), the APU does not produce enough cooling air to cool the cabin or the instruments. An external unit is hooked up through large ducts with a nozzle that attaches to a port on the aircraft, pumping cool air into the ducting. 

Lavatory and Water Service Vehicles

In the Air Force, these are known as “SWAT” trucks. It’s not glamorous, but a necessary part of ground handling is emptying the lavatory and refilling the water. Also, the trash has to be emptied. 

De/Anti-Icing Vehicles

De-icing and anti-icing vehicles are region-specific trucks that are used to either de-ice aircraft that are already covered in snow and ice or apply anti-icing agents to aircraft that are expected to enter known icing conditions.

Deicing a Herc in some iffy conditions.

These trucks have large heating elements to keep the fluids warm, and they are also equipped with high-volume, low-pressure air compressors to blow loose snow off of the aircraft. 

Container Loaders

Cargo-carrying heavies like those used by Amazon Prime, Atlas, and a handful of others.

A lot of the cargo is loaded into air cargo containers and air cargo pallets that are loaded directly onto the jets. Cargo jets are equipped with multi-directional rollers so the cargo containers and pallets can be easily pushed into position and secured to the floor. 

The container loaders are built kind of like a huge scissor jack. The cargo containers and pallets are loaded onto the container loader, which is then driven up to the aircraft. The loader lifts to the appropriate height, and the cargo is pushed into the aircraft. 

Non-Powered Equipment

Non-powered GSE is used constantly on aprons all over the world. It is used on everything from light servicing to heavy maintenance and repairs. 


When you get into medium (single-aisle) and especially heavy jets (wide-body jets), the tire and wheel combinations are very heavy, weighing hundreds of pounds each. But not only are they heavy, but they are also sensitive. 

The heat shields on the back of every aircraft tire (on the mains) are easily bent or broken and unusable if damaged. 

Tire dollies are a mandatory part of the tire change process, cradling the tire & wheel combo. A chain secures the tire so it won’t fall over. Using the dolly also ensures that the wheel isn’t installed crooked, which can easily happen when installing it manually (ask me how I know).


Wheel chocks are the most basic and also most necessary piece of non-powered GSE on the apron. Every aircraft must be chocked, period. 

These are also important for use when the aircraft is conducting maintenance engine runs; even on just one engine, a large jet can easily break loose of the brakes when the engine is taken up above idle.  

Don’t overlook chocks. Don’t forget to use chocks. 

Aircraft Tripod Jack

There are two basic types of jacks for aircraft (note: we are talking about commercial aircraft here, not private or general aviation aircraft). 

  1. Axle jacks are used to lift either the nose landing gear or the main landing gear to replace tires and brakes.
  2. Tripod jacks, which are used to lift the entire aircraft. 

Some circumstances require aircraft mechanics to lift the entire aircraft to a level position off of the ground. It usually facilitates operating the landing gear while on the ground, known commonly as “swinging the gears.”

Tripod jacks are used for this purpose. Every aircraft type has differing amounts of jacking points, requiring different amounts of jacks, sometimes different sizes as well. Most jets require 4-6 tripod jacks to lift the aircraft, but it differs from airframe to airframe. 

Aircraft Service Stairs

Aircraft service or boarding stairs are used for enplaning and deplaning parked aircraft. They come in all shapes and sizes and are both powered and non-powered. The simplest are non-powered, usually pulled into position using a compact airport tug. 

They are commonly used for passenger loading and unloading but are also occasionally used by ground crews for servicing, cleaning, and light maintenance, where using the crew entry is impractical.

Airport terminals are busy!

Importance of Ground Support Equipment in Aviation Operations

We’ll just put it bluntly: without ground support equipment, aviation operations stand still. Commercial aviation doesn’t exist without GSE. 

This goes for mundane tasks like removing trash and emptying the lav, all the way to removing and installing engines.

Nearly everything that happens on commercial aircraft on the ground is facilitated by some kind of GSE, whether powered or non-powered. 

It makes work easier, and GSE is designed to make tasks safer. How would you safely pull an engine without an engine trailer? Replacing a tire without a dolly can and does easily lead to injuries.  

Parting Thoughts

Procuring high-quality ground service equipment is a priority for your aviation operations department. Whether you are an aviation logistics operator, an MRO, or in flight operations, GSE impacts your operation tremendously. 

Government Procurement is your friend in the business, connecting you with the equipment you need to be on time, on target, and under budget. Give us a call today to find out more, or get an online quote started right now!