Behind the scenes. When the flying stops.

By: Dave Gunner

November 6, 2020 Manuel Gibaja

#ThisIsEngineering is a campaign to bring engineering to life for young people. That's a good thing. Within our own engineering team there's a broad range of different roles, each with unique skills. These include engineers who specialise in aircraft engines, the airframes, or avionics (all the electronics and computers onboard) to name a few. They can work in our offices, in hangars and out on 'the line' where you will sometimes spot them looking after an aircraft between flights. They work around the clock all over the world, and always with our customers' safety at the heart of what they do.

For this year’s #ThisIsEngineering day, we’re shining a light on a team within our engineering division that you might not have heard of. They’re called Aircraft Programme & Asset Management. They are responsible for, amongst other things, bringing new aircraft into our fleet, overseeing aircraft that are leaving us and caring for any aircraft that need to be parked for an extended period. If all that sounds simple, it’s anything but. We caught up with Denis Brailsford, Manager, Aircraft Assets, and Jo Smyth, Manager, Airworthiness Records, to find out what’s involved in parking an aircraft and what needs to be done when one leaves our fleet.

Jo and Denis with part of the recently dismantled Boeing 747 G-VFAB

The aircraft assets team usually deal with one or two aircraft at a time, but that all changed when Covid-19 came along. They suddenly had to deal with retiring our whole Airbus A340 and Boeing 747 fleets and parking many of our other aircraft. It all started back in April when the full extent of the crisis became evident. We temporarily paused our passenger services but soon began flying an extensive operation of cargo services. With the complexities of maintenance and crewing requirements, it made sense to consolidate our ‘cargo only’ flying onto a simplified fleet; opting to use our Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s for the most efficient cargo operations, whilst storing our A330 and B747 aircraft.

The first job was finding somewhere to park our fleet, and several considerations had to be taken into account. There are two basic ways of parking aircraft; active parking (short-term) and storage (long-term). The long-term storage plan enables airlines to store aircraft in a condition where minimum maintenance is performed, and aircraft can remain in storage for two years. This method requires a considerable team effort to preserve the aircraft, as well as a larger package of work to reactivate and test the aircraft before it can return to the skies. For longer-term storage, weather conditions play an important role, so the aircraft assets team had to look further afield. For example, the dry air at Ciudad Real (CQM) in Spain where we have stored some of our aircraft is ideal.

For short term storage, our home bases of Manchester and London Heathrow were incredibly supportive with our parking requests.  However, as the crisis developed and the majority of the European airline fleets were grounded, tarmac space became scarce, which meant we had to look further afield. Doncaster immediately stood out as a perfect match, allowing us to park our aircraft while using our maintenance teams from Manchester to perform periodic parking checks.

It’s essential that the aircraft are easily accessible, so our engineering teams can regularly perform checks to ensure our fleet remains airworthy and ready to return to service when required. Further maintenance requirements are another factor. An excellent example of this is when our B747 fleet was on the ground in Manchester. The aircraft underwent a complicated programme of engine changes and other activity in readiness for them to retire (more on this later).

“Each manufacturer and aircraft type has a different approach to parking and storage, but it’s always an extremely complex and detailed process,” said Denis. “The most interesting part has been seeing how these methods and procedures have developed and adapted to the global pandemic, and how manufacturers and operators have worked together to improve how we park and store aircraft.”

Watch as our engineers change an engine

No flying doesn’t mean no work to do

When an aircraft is first put into storage, several things need to be done depending on the aircraft type and how long it will be stored. Typically that would involve “blanking up”, or covering, all the external openings, including everything from the engine intakes to the smallest opening (like the tiny ‘pitot’ tubes that measure airspeed).The fuel remaining in the tanks is then treated to stop any microbiological growth and we isolate all the electrics on the aircraft, including disconnecting all batteries. But that’s by no means the end of the story.

The maintenance on the parked aircraft is still very involved and time-consuming with maintenance inspections carried out at regular intervals. Every seven days there is a simple inspection where the aircraft is powered up, and some basic checks are carried out, including fluid levels, battery power and any status messages.  We also perform a walk around, both internally and externally, to check for any leaks or damage to ensure the aircraft is still correctly blanked.

We then carry out increasingly more involved checks at 14 days, 30 days, 60 days, and 180 days.

At 30 days we will remove all the blanks and run the engines at idle power for a length of time. We also run the air-conditioning system and move the aircraft to rotate the wheels and power up the brakes.  This inspection is typically about 60 man-hours.

At 180 days the aircraft will come into the hangar for a full check and inspection. This includes lubrication of all the flight controls, removal of wheels to perform axle inspections and much more.  These typically use around 300 man-hours to complete.

Our engineering teams travel around the country to maintain these checks, with our Manchester staff travelling to Doncaster and Glasgow to carry out these inspections every 7 days. While these checks keep the aircraft in an airworthy condition, they will still need to fly on a test flight before they can be returned to service or moved out of the fleet.

When space is at a premium, the parking gets tight.

Saying goodbye

As with parking, the process of getting an aircraft ready for return is long and complicated. This typically starts about 18 months out, although with so many returns, timeframes had to be shortened during the crisis. The workload depends on whether the aircraft is leased, in which case it goes back to its lessor, or we own it, in which case we sell it, or if it has reached the end of its life in which case it goes to be scrapped.

For leased aircraft, we’d typically start engaging with the lessors and interpreting the lease conditions (which of course were set out many years ago when the aircraft was new) and agreeing on the precise return conditions of the aircraft. Whatever is next in store for the aircraft after leaving our fleet can make a difference to discussions at this stage.

Whether the aircraft will go to be dismantled or continue flying with a new operator will have a bearing on the course of the negotiations. Each aircraft also needs to be returned with its original engines in place. And that can mean multiple engine changes ahead of the sale or return to the lessor of each aircraft. Planning the logistics of shuffling engines around can start a good two years out. We may need to perform heavy maintenance checks and rectifying any defects the aircraft has. That includes ground acceptance checks, physical inspections, de-branding modifications – including the removal of the external livery – culminating in ground and flight acceptance tests which demonstrates all the systems function fully. These tests range from flights to test the aircraft handling and performance to switching each passenger reading light on and off.

Just some of that paperwork!

Another aspect of an aircraft return is the phenomenal volume of work preparing all the technical records required.  “The paperwork for a typical aircraft consists of 1.5 tonnes of paper (c. 350,000 sheets of A4), the records literally fill a large room,” said Jo Smyth. “Each one of those pieces of paper must be meticulously reviewed and checked. We need to be able to demonstrate to the lessor that the aircraft is compliant with all mandatory and regulatory requirements. They will review the records right down to spelling errors, missing stamps, missing documentation references, etc. In theory, if we didn’t have the correct documentation for work performed on the aircraft, we would need to re-assess and potentially re-do the work – very rare for us as we have our house in order. Still, you can see the importance of having every single one of the millions of I’s dotted and T’s crossed.  Without the complete historic records, a multi-million-dollar airliner is effectively worthless.”

As the return date approaches, a couple of months out we kick-off an intense programme of thorough inspections by the lessor, usually culminating in a demo flight putting the aircraft through its paces ahead of positioning to the end of lease or sale location. That’s why you’ve been seeing our aircraft perform some short flights to Bournemouth (where some were sold) to Wales (to be scrapped) or to Los Angeles (to return to their lessors). Of course, each departure is like saying goodbye to an old friend.

The other part of the aircraft assets team job is looking after new aircraft as they join our fleet. Our previous blog post describes what it takes to deliver an Airbus 350

"I have the real privilege of having a job which makes sure this comes together. Our roles in the Aircraft Asset Management team can only be achieved with the support and efforts of many great teams across the airline". - Denis Brailsford

Throughout the summer large crowds gathered at Manchester to wave farewell to our Boeing 747s

No two returns are ever the same, and the process touches just about every part of Engineering; Fleet Technical, Cabin, Materials, Propulsion, Programmes & Reliability, to name a few.

The possibilities are endless

If one department of one company in one industry can be so fascinating, think of all the other possibilities for a career in engineering. That’s why we support #ThisIsEngineering and can’t wait for things to get back to normal so we can welcome more engineers into our teams.

Many thanks to Manuel Gibaja for the header photo

Dave Gunner

Dave Gunner

I love telling the story of our people, our planes, our places and our planet through Ruby Blog.

Categories: Our Experience