Airliner Repair, 24/7
Boeing's traveling fix-it team has one goal: Get it airborne.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
Rick Turnbaugh / Boeing Creative Services
(Page 3 of 6)
The reckoning takes into account more than just the repair. A critical shortage of “lift”—the pool of aircraft on the market to replace one scrapped—is a big factor. The waiting list for most Boeing models is three years, and used airliners for sale or lease are scarce. “The book value of the plane, plus the fact that you can’t get a new one for another two or three years, is what dictates whether you fix it or not,” AOG engineer Craig Oppedal says. For a 1998 Boeing 767, it’s cheaper to keep it.
Up on a hangar balcony, a smattering of airport office workers watch the drama of deconstruction. “Most people have never seen a large aircraft come apart like this,” says Mike Carpenter, project team leader. But looky-loos glimpse only airplane-incognito-on-ground. Among the first implements of an AOG team is brown paper to mask identifying airline logos on the airplane during repair. Boeing maintains doctor-patient confidentiality with customers not eager to have their brand name associated with an embarrassing incident—much less advertise the fact that passengers will be boarding an airplane that lately has been in two pieces.
Photos of the incident conveyed only skin-deep gashes on the underside of the empennage. I’d seen as much inflicted on cars in mall parking lots. But the survey team recognized that this was no mere panel-bender. “Just by the external location of the damage, we pretty much knew what to expect,” Paul Amrine says. For a ground-handling incident, it could hardly have been worse. A fence stanchion penetrated at the precise spot to puncture one of the largest, most critical components on an airliner: the rear pressure bulkhead. The 16-foot-diameter dome-shaped aluminum barrier is sandwiched between the fourth and fifth fuselage segments and seals in life-supporting cabin pressure. These bulkheads are constructed as integral units, so when they are substantially damaged, they must be replaced, not repaired. The instructions have only three steps. Pull the $120 million airliner completely in two, insert bulkhead, put halves back together again. In three weeks.
Spread across the hangar floor is a half-acre of cranes, jacks, crates, and tool cases. “This is our portable factory,” says Mike Carpenter. The gear, all on casters or pallets, is designed for transit, rapid setup, and tear-down. Once the contract is signed, the AOG operation’s second wave—the mechanics, engineers, and inspectors, plus the portable factory and a cargo hold of parts—descends en masse.
“I’ve got to get 36 people and all logistics on site in a matter of days,” Carpenter says. He picked his team from AOG staffs at the Washington facilities (another small group in Long Beach, California, tends the McDonnell Douglas fleet). Some have expertise specific to the 767, “but most can work on any Boeing plane any time,” he says. “Structure is structure.”
AOG team accommodations range from tents beside dirt runways in underdeveloped countries to a blur of bland airport hotels. Anniversary and birthday no-shows, chronic jet lag, continual room service sandwich platters—all part of the job.
It’s not for everyone. Within Boeing’s rank-and-file, Testin’s group tends to be conspicuous as self-directed overachievers. “The cream of the crop,” Bernie Dalien says bluntly. “There’s a lot of animosity toward us in the factories because AOG is so difficult to get into. A ton of guys back there would love to have this job.”
Dalien would know. On the arc to AOG, he paid a decade of dues on the 737 and 757 production lines, accumulating skills like merit badges. Boeing’s average production employee carries seven job certifications; the average AOG member, 28. A competent electrician in Washington you may be, but in AOG you’ll also need to drive a rivet and drop an engine with the best of them. And play nice with your fellow Type A’s. Candidates for a vacancy are sent on tryout repairs to far-flung locales, not only to test their skills but also to gauge how they relate to others in the tight-knit team. “They’ll bring us a guy who really shines in the factory,” Dalien says. “But take him out of his comfort zone and put him in a situation like this, and you find out his personality’s not cohesive with the rest of us. So he’s weeded out.”