Monday, August 20, 2012

Ensuring flights are good to go

Bird strikes, lightning strikes, wear and tear, loose nuts and bolts - everything is inspected and repaired before an airliner can take off again. Yang Jian talks to inspectors who signs the checklist certifying that an airliner is safe and good to go.

When an airliner touches down at Hongqiao International Airport, Zhao Gangfeng, a senior aircraft maintenance engineer-inspector rushes onto the tarmac with his two partners.

Armed with flashlight, tools and clipboard, he crouches under the fuselage to carefully check the undercarriage, engines, fuel tanks and other parts to ensure everything is in good operating condition and every nut, bolt and screw is tight. He checks the tires.

Zhao, a veteran with 24 years' of maintenance, works for Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines. He is one of around 1,800 airline maintenance employes checking around 400 flights that land and take off each day at the Hongqiao airport, according to Huang Shaohu, deputy manager of China Eastern Engineering and Technology Co.

Many thousands of maintenance workers are employed at Hongqiao and Pudong international airports in Shanghai, going through check lists required by Chinese and international civil aviation authorities.

While Zhao checks the fuselage, one of the other two inspectors on his team enters the cockpit and makes a thorough check, with the other checking the tail and rudder.

After all the checks required by civil aviation authorities are completed an hour or so later, Zhao signs his name on a safety check-off chart to confirm the airliner is ready to take off again.

Zhao makes minor repairs. If there's a serious problem, repair work is ordered at once.

By this time, the team's uniforms are soaked through with sweat; temperatures on the tarmac can reach 60 degrees Celsius, while those in the cabin can reach 40 degrees in summer, when the air-conditioning is switched off.

After a brief rest, when their uniforms are barely dry, they rush off to do the same thing again when another plane lands.

"We must not only check every part carefully, but also complete the checks as soon as possible to ensure the aircraft can take off on time," Zhao says.

Zhao, 46, checks at least six aircraft every day, from 8am to 8pm. Then the night shift takes over.

As head of his maintenance team, each time Zhao signs his name, he assumes responsibility for the safety and airworthiness of every aircraft he checks.

"Sometimes I feel pressure when I sign my name, but I always tell myself to think of the pressure as responsibility for every passenger onboard," Zhao says.

In all his years, he has never made a mistake in maintenance or certification of aircraft safety, Zhao says.

Bird strikes are among the most common problems, occurring when birds and aircraft collide during take off or landing. If the birds are sucked into engines, there can be serious malfunctions.

"It can cause big problems, since we have to change entire parts if there are bird strikes on the wings or engine casings," Zhao says.

Some strikes are obvious, but some can be difficult to notice. Zhao says they go over the aircraft carefully, looking for blood, even tiny specs, as well as feathers or dents, which could indicate impact damage beneath the surface.

Lightning strikes are another problem, especially in summer. Whenever inspectors spot a burn on the surface, they check inside parts and electrical systems that could be damaged by lightning.

If problems cannot be fixed in a short time, the aircraft is grounded and repaired overnight, if possible, to ensure the flight schedule won't be affected the following day.

Overnight work is not uncommon; Zhao works five nights a month.

Nighttime work on the tarmac is painful in winter, when temperatures are lower and the windchill makes it seem worse.

Liu Xiaofeng, one of Zhao's colleagues, has been an airline mechanic for 20 years and says he has severe arthritis in his fingers and knees.

"Our fingers get wet with fuel while we repair engines and they turn numb when the cold wind blows," Liu says.

He and others must crouch or kneel under the fuselage for several hours during major repairs at night and it can get freezing cold. "Arthritis is a common problem for nearly every mechanic here," Liu says.

Stomach problems also are not uncommon since workers frequently must interrupt their meals and rush to the runway whenever an aircraft lands. The food can go bad in summer and get cold in winter.

Apart from daily checks and repairs, inspection and maintenance staff such as Zhao and Liu undertake longer, comprehensive checks on every aircraft every year.

One of the biggest nuisances is the annual opening and checking of the inflatable evacuation slides that are used in emergencies.

With a big bang, the escape slide is fully inflated by 3,000 pounds of helium within seven seconds. Then the slide is checked for leaks and damage. It then takes at least four days for four men to refold the slides, working in a small room, and put them back in place. Each large airliner usually has three evacuation slides on each side.

Each slide also contains 15 emergency packages that include torches, signal flares and a simple sea water purification system.

At Hongqiao airport, China Eastern staff must check and fold 40 slides each month.

Despite all the hard work and pressure, Zhao says he never regrets his work, but he's sorry he doesn't have more time to spend with his wife and 12-year-old son.

He feels especially proud when his son points to an airliner in flight and says, "that's repaired by my father."


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