Airliner Repair, 24/7

Boeing’s traveling fix-it team has one goal: Get it airborne.

Fred Chadwick and Ron Beatty (foreground) install temporary fasterners that hold the skin in place for riveting. (Rick Turnbaugh / Boeing Creative Services)
Air & Space Magazine

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Incident reports advance to the center’s resident engineers. With broad experience across the aircraft types in Boeing’s fleet, these frontline troubleshooters huddle to prescribe the most immediate relief. In cases of structural damage, which make up 60 percent of the calls, the solution usually involves collaboration with specialized engineers elsewhere in the company—what Rund terms “the brain surgeons.”

“We get the customer on the line, we get the brain surgeons of Boeing on the line, and we sit in a collaboration room and videoconference,” he says. Plasma screens with smart boards facilitate sketches on digitized blueprints and photos. By now, an AOG survey team in Washington State has been alerted and is standing by. After each engineer confirms his understanding of the damage and votes a course of action, the plan is presented to the airline.

Order is supplanting chaos. Just getting the aircraft into Boeing hands has a therapeutic effect on stressed-out airline execs. It’s also a healthy antidote to denial when damage is severe. “By this point, in most cases the airline recognizes that— and will tell us—‘This is beyond our capabilities,’ ” Rund says. “Then it’s time to get Jim’s team involved.”

“This, By Far, is the best job in Boeing,” AOG mechanic Bernie Dalien shouts over rivet guns and rock ’n’ roll. “The boring, the mundane, the everyday thing—that’s not our gig.”

We’re in an enormous halogen-lit hangar in Western Europe, standing between two separated segments of a 767. Earsplitting music thunders from an iPod boom-box. Widebody X is the one recently spindled on the fence.

As the last of its deplaned passengers straggled to their destinations, the AOG survey team was en route. The four-member first wave is often in the air from Seattle on just four hours’ notice. Says Paul Amrine, quality assurance supervisor on this project, “Sometimes we go to work in the morning and end up having to ask our wives to bring us a packed suitcase.” Amrine himself arrived at the hangar after back-to-back surveys of incidents in Shannon, Ireland, and Taipei, Taiwan. The team appraises the aircraft, documenting what Boeing calls “discrepancies” (a torn-off wing, for example). Man-hours, parts and resources, and a time-flow to a rock-hard completion date are calculated. Back in Everett, a contract is drawn up that includes a firm price. “And the customer either says yea or nay,” Amrine says. In the death match of airline competition, the yeas usually have it.

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.

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