When we board a plane for our holidays or have to fly for a business trip we tend to take a lot for granted about the aircraft that we fly on and we don’t really think about the fact that that such aircraft actually take a lot of looking after. Just to get them ready to take to the skies and keeping them well maintained requires an awful lot of work by many people and the ground crews who perform this vital role have to depend upon certain specialist ground support equipment, without which the aircraft would not be able to fly.
Moving Aircraft – Aircraft Tugs
Firstly, let’s think about how aircraft are moved around whilst at an airport. Simply pushing an aircraft back out of its parking slot requires a lot of precision, control and power. This is accomplished with an aircraft tug (more details).
Aircraft tugs come in a wide variety of different types and sizes. Smaller hand-operated tugs can help move aircraft up to around 5 tonnes, whilst electrically powered tugs can move somewhat larger planes and gas powered, all-wheel drive tugs can handle much bigger ones like the passenger aircraft that you are likely to fly on when going on holiday.
Powering Aircraft – Ground Power Units & Start Units
Moving the plane around on the ground is one thing, but providing the power to start the engines is quite another. Many aircraft require a start power unit to provide them with the correct voltage to start the engines.
The exact requirements for this power vary from aircraft to aircraft. Some small aircraft require 12V power, while many others require a 24V or even 28V power supply. In addition to powering the aircraft, some ground power units (also known as GPUs) can provide continuous power to the aircraft while it is on the ground too. These continuous power supplies allow vehicle systems to run on ground power. In addition, there are other special types of ground power equipment such as frequency converters too, making the matter of safely powering up an aircraft when it is simply parked at an airport quite a complicated business.
Maintaining Aircraft – Inspection Tools
In addition to moving and starting the aircraft, there are, of course, a number of other tasks that are essential to its maintenance and flight. One of the most important tasks is to ensure that the aircraft is in the best mechanical condition and safe for flight. This testing and maintenance involves the use of specialised tools used to test, measure and maintain the various aircraft systems. Various meters and inspection tools are used to ensure that all values correspond to the readings required by the aircraft manufacturer.
Aircraft test procedures are the most important operations performed by maintenance technicians, and no corners are cut in the execution of these tasks. Every component of an aircraft, including the airframe, electrical systems, computer systems, fuel systems, landing gear and communication equipment, is regularly inspected and tested, usually after a certain number of flight hours has been reached. Any problems that are found during the inspections, no matter how small, are immediately resolved.
Depending on the type of maintenance the aircraft requires and the quantity of strain the plane is likely to have experienced, inspection methods are separated into different tiers. Basic inspections (level 1) are performed after each flight, under normal circumstances. As the aircraft registers more flight hours, the level and complexity of the inspections increase accordingly.
Thorough, in-depth inspections will be performed at pre-determined intervals or after a certain number of flying hours, with experts recommending that they occur at least every six months, depending on the amount of time the aircraft has spent in the air during that time.
You may wonder how the technicians can see all the parts of the plane during these inspections without having to partially disassemble the plane. Well, technicians rely on pretty nifty equipment to perform these important checks. In addition to the tools you may be familiar with, they use things like flexible camera systems (known as borescopes or fiberscopes). These ingenious types of cameras can be used to visually access areas of the aircraft that would normally be overlooked, allowing technicians to see if there are any hidden problems.
So, the next time you climb the stairs to board a plane, you’ll now hopefully be a little more aware of some of the special equipment that’s used behind the scenes to make sure everything is working exactly as it should and to make sure the plane can fly safely and carry you to your destination.