In aviation, pushback is an airport procedure during which an aircraft is pushed backwards away from an airport gate by external power. Pushbacks are carried out by special, low-profile vehicles called pushback tractors or tugs.
Although many aircraft are capable of moving themselves backwards on the ground using reverse thrust (a procedure referred to as a powerback), the resulting jet blast or prop wash may cause damage to the terminal building or equipment. Engines close to the ground may also blow sand and debris forward and then suck it into the engine, causing damage to the engine. A pushback is therefore the preferred method to move the aircraft away from the gate
Pushbacks at busy aerodromes are usually subject to ground control clearance to facilitate ground movement on taxiways. Once clearance is obtained, the pilot will communicate with the tractor driver (or a ground handler walking alongside the aircraft in some cases) to start the pushback. To communicate, a headset may be connected near the nose gear.
Since the pilots cannot see what is behind the aircraft, steering is done by the pushback tractor driver and not by the pilots. Depending on the aircraft type and airline procedure, a bypass pin may be temporarily installed into the nose gear to disconnect it from the aircraft's normal steering mechanism.
Once the pushback is completed, the towbar is disconnected, and the bypass pin is removed. The ground handler will show the bypass pin to the pilots to make it clear that it has been removed. The pushback is then complete, and the aircraft can taxi forward under its own power.
Large aircraft cannot be moved by hand and must have a tractor or tug. Pushback tractors use a low profile design to fit under the aircraft nose. For sufficient traction the tractor must be heavy, and most models can have extra ballast added. A typical tractor for large aircraft weighs up to 54 tonnes (119,000 pounds) and has a drawbar pull of 334 kN (75,000 lbf). Often the driver's cabin can be raised for increased visibility when reversing and lowered to fit under aircraft. There are two types of pushback tractors: conventional and towbarless (TBL).
Conventional tugs use a tow bar to connect the tug to the nose landing gear of the aircraft. The tow bar is fixed laterally at the nose landing gear, but may move slightly vertically for height adjustment. At the end that attaches to the tug, the tow bar may pivot freely laterally and vertically. In this manner the tow bar acts as a large lever to rotate the nose landing gear. Each aircraft type has a unique tow fitting so the towbar also acts as an adapter between the standard-sized tow pin on the tug and the type-specific fitting on the aircraft's landing gear. The tow bar must be long enough to place the tug far away enough to avoid hitting the aircraft and to provide sufficient leverage to facilitate turns. On heavy tow bars for large aircraft the towbar rides on its own wheels when not connected to an aircraft. The wheels are attached to a hydraulic jacking mechanism which can lift the towbar to the correct height to mate to both the airplane and the tug, and once this is accomplished the same mechanism is used in reverse to raise the tow bar wheels from the ground during the pushback process. The tow bar can be connected at the front or the rear of the tractor, depending on whether the aircraft will be pushed or pulled. The towbar has a shear pin which prevents the aircraft from being mishandled by the tug; when overstressed the shear pin will snap, disconnecting the bar from the nose gear to prevent damage to the aircraft and tug.