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Thursday, December 1, 2005

Maintenance on the Fire Front

Thierry Dubois, European Contributing Editor

"Il est bon?" ("Is it fine?") a concerned TAT Industries maintenance technician asks the Canadair CL-415 firefighter pilot as he deplanes. The answer is "oui," and the technician, reassured on the repair she had performed a couple of hours ago, goes back to the cramped workshop to complete another task.

 

It could have been less favorable. Firefighting aircraft face severe conditions, having to scoop saltwater dozens of times a day. Yet aircraft maintenance provider TAT Industries has to meet a 100-percent dispatch reliability requirement by the S�curit� Civile. The French Civil Security Directorate includes the national air guard in charge of firefighting. Line maintenance at Marseille Marignane Airport is therefore a critical operation.

 

Every summer, the south of France is affected by series of forest fires, often putting the 11 "Canadairs," as they are called in the country, through tough times.

 

TAT Industries has been under a contract with the S�curit� Civile since 1998. The contract was renewed in 2001 and then in 2004. The current contract applies until 2008. Basically, the main requirement in the contract is 100-percent dispatch reliability from sunrise to sunset during the fire season, mid-June to mid-September.

 

Penalties are applied in case the availability falls under the required level. And they are applied strictly. For example, the two hours allowed in the afternoon for repair tasks should not be overshot. "If we take two hours and one minute, the S�curit� Civile contractually counts an entire afternoon of unavailability," said Jean-Louis Fabre, head of TAT's S�curit� Civile business.

 

Maintenance is charged on a fly-by-the-hour basis. TAT Industries is responsible for maintaining three Beech King Airs (used for liaison missions), 12 Conair Firecats, and the 11 Canadair CL-415 amphibians. Standard Aero is in charge of the entire fleet's engine support.

 

The Firecats, line-maintained by TAT Industries in Marignane, include 11 turbo Firecats and one piston-powered Firecat. All more than 30 years old, the Firecats were once Grumman Trackers, maritime patrol and sub-hunting airplanes serving the U.S. Navy. They have been refurbished twice, once to convert them into firefighters and once to replace Wright Cyclone nine-cylinder radial piston engines with Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67AF turboprops. In the S�curit� Civile's fleet, one Firecat has kept its piston engines.

 

While the Canadairs can scoop 6,300 liters of water on the run, the Trackers, as the Firecats are usually called, cannot scoop. But they carry 3,200 liters of water mixed with fire-retardant. They fly in two-plane armed aerial warning patrols of 2.5 hours. In other words, their job is to detect forest fire starts. They can drop fire retardant either to nip a fire in the bud or to help the Canadairs on a major fire.

 

Paradoxically, being old does not impact their reliability, Fabre said. "We have few problems with the Trackers, almost only electrical switch glitches," a technician confirmed. This is partly due to the relatively gentle missions they perform. In addition, they are rugged, as they were designed to operate from aircraft carriers. "Folding the wings helps us for some heavy maintenance tasks," said head of production Patrick Coquillat.

 

The last piston Tracker is to be phased out this year. "It will make our life easier as it had us maintaining some specific skills," Fabre commented. The turboprop engines on the other Trackers have proved more reliable. "When the fleet was still all piston, it was commonplace to change two or three cylinders per night," Coquillat said.

 

An extensive renovation program has been launched on the entire turboprop fleet. It is targeted at keeping the Trackers in service until 2020. For example, the current metal skin, made of several panels, is suffering from corrosion. A single piece of metal, chemically machined, replaced the old skin on four aircraft as of early July. No renovation work is performed during the summer.

 

The second and third phases of the renovation program, called "Project 2020," are currently being defined. The second one will involve the restoring of wing boxes and the empennage. The third phase will involve the fuselage and the systems. Discussions are underway with Abbotsford, Canada-based Cascade Aerospace, which is in charge of Turbo-Firecat support and is providing advice to the TAT Industries technicians working on Project 2020.

 

Three maintenance shifts

At Marseilles Marignane Airport, five teams work on a three-days-on/two-days-off basis. Work is organized in three overlapping shifts. The first one, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., mainly performs scheduled maintenance. The second one, from noon to 7 p.m., is dedicated to daily maintenance. The third shift, from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., performs night troubleshooting and readies the aircraft for the next morning. Up to 30 people work at a time during peak periods. "I can see motivation grow as operations intensify and constraints get tougher," Fabre said.

 

A team of maintenance technicians comprises at least eight people--electrical and electronics specialists, mechanics, and sheetmetal workers. The evening when we visited the operation, there were 13 people, a base of eight plus five trainees and reinforcement personnel from other locations. During the fire season, TAT keeps a total of 130 employees in Marseille Marignane.

 

We met sheetmetal specialist Arnaud Pannetier, and he explained that some repairs are temporary, such as installing a patch on a King Air leading edge to allow pilots to fly back to a location where permanent repairs can be done. However, it can take eight hours to work up a spare part, even a temporary one.

 

"During the winter, we do the definitive [repairs]," Pannetier explained. CL-415 winter maintenance is performed at a TAT base in N�mes, 60 miles northwest of Marignane. The Trackers stay in Marignane all year long.

 

Fighting corrosion

For the Canadairs, scooping saltwater implies a number of constraints to avoid corrosion. When the aircraft is back, the aircraft are hosed down with soft water to romove salt. Water bays are then filled with soft water and emptied. The engines require special attention. "We have them running and we spray demineralized water in the air intake to unsalt the compressor," Coquillat explained. The post-sea scoop maintenance operation takes half an hour with two people per aircraft. In some cases, the entire11-Canadair fleet has to be unsalted.

 

That is just the daily maintenance routine. Once a week, maintenance technicians "rinse the turbines with soft water, using a special port in the combustor. And we rinse the exterior of the engine," Coquillat told Aviation Maintenance. Pilots say that they would rather use lakes or rivers instead of sea when they have the choice, because they know that the sea salt can be more corrosive.

 

In some instances, repairs have to be performed in difficult conditions. For example, it happened a CL-415 had to land on the water after an incident, and Coquillat and a team of technicians had to replace the airplane's propeller blades using special water scaffoldings.

 

Another job had maintenance personnel diving into the water to close water doors that were open. "We train regularly for these kind of special conditions," Coquillat said. However, one cannot anticipate every single failure in every kind of condition.

 

According to CL-415 pilot Jean-Louis de B�n�dict (see sidebar, page 17), the most frequent problems on this aircraft are small electronic glitches. "Quite often we just have to re-boot the system to fix the problem," he explained, using a term familiar to computer users to describe recycling the avionics system. In addition, scoop-position sensors are not very reliable, he said.

 

In some instances of false alarms, such as an unreliable scoop-position sensor, the technicians just check that it is a false alarm and the aircraft is safe. But they do not have time to go in depth into the possible origin of the trouble. If the alarm occurs again, the technician embarks for a check flight.

 

Close-knit staff

On the apron, the cooperation between pilots and maintenance technicians is striking. Next to the aircraft, right after--or sometimes before--the pilots climb out of the cockpit, words and impressions are exchanged. These moments are key: technicians get additional details from what pilots have written in the logbook.

 

The firefighter pilots know they can trust the technicians' work and hence the aircraft they maintain. The atmosphere is one of confidence, in part because of the common background many technicians and pilots have in the French Air Force.

 

The camaraderie extends to Laetitia Cl�rico, the only women in that night's maintenance team. "I have been working here for six years," she said. She was hired for a two-month contract as an assistant mechanic but wound up working as a TAT Industries technicians for six years. With a gentleman friend to take care of her baby, she is able maintain the "crazy hours. We sometimes go back home at four or five o'clock in the morning," she said.

 

Asked about the maintainability of the Trackers, she joked, "It's fine...you just need to have right-sized fingers."

Flying aboard firefighters remains a dangerous job, however, and close-knit pilot and maintenance staff serving S�curit� Civile must occasionally mourn the loss of comrades. Over the past 27 years, 27 crewmembers lost their lives on the fire front.

 

Missing the Fokkers

The King Airs are useful for fleet inspections. Most firefighters are based in Marignane but some are on the island of Corsica, at Cannes (on the French Riviera), and Carcassonne (in the southwest of France). "Thanks to the King Air, we can perform a fleet inspection in one day," Fabre noted, using the airplane to ferry parts and technicians to where the firefighters are being serviced. TAT technicians do miss the capacity of the Fokker F-27s, which were retired in October 2004. The F-27s were useful for carrying large components or even spare engines.

 

Negotiations between TAT Industries and the S�curit� Civile are sometimes difficult. For example, some difficulties appeared at the beginning of the summer on the Trackers, due to a previous, far-from-perfect repair, performed before the aircraft started flying for the S�curit� Civile.

 

The repair was so old (15 years) that there was no record of it. For TAT Industries, the cost of fixing the issue on the Tracker fleet was all the higher as extensive investigation was needed on the past repair. And there was downtime involved, too. "In such particular circumstances, we hope that our customer will agree on suppressing the non-availability penalty," Fabre said.

 

Coquillat and Fabre run the TAT operation in Marignane. During the fire season, their weekends can be brief and their evenings frequently interrupted by phone calls.

 

Sidebar

CL-415 Accidents

Pilots Ludovic Piasentin, 50, and Jean-Louis de B�n�dict, 55, died during the crash of Canadair CL-415 F-ZBEO on August 1. As the aircraft was just about to drop water on a fire and without hitting any obstacle, the aft fuselage--with vertical and horizontal stabilizers attached--detached. The crew of two died in the resulting crash. The entire fleet was temporarily grounded for inspection by TAT Industries technicians. The investigation is continuing.

 

Summer 2005 fires took a heavy toll on the Marignane-based firefighters, as two other pilots, R�gis Huillier and Albert Pouzoulet, died in their Tracker. Aviation Maintenance expresses its deepest sympathy to all the relatives of the crewmembers deceased. -- By Thierry Dubois

 

Sidebar

TAT: A Growing Player in Commercial MRO

TAT Industries nearly doubled in size with the acquisition of Sabena Technics on July 8, 2005 and the combined companies now are expected to reach an estimated 2005 turnover of about$300 million. Now about 65 percent of TAT's business is in the civil sector and 35 percent government work, including the firefighting maintenance operations.

 

The primary change with the Sabena Technics acquisition was adding large commercial aircraft to the TAT menu. Previously, TAT's commercial activities centered around narrowbodies and regional airliners. Before adding Sabena Technics, TAT employed 1,250 people and now the total is 2,500, of which 1,150 work for Sabena Technics. Of the total, about 1,200 are technical personnel (engineers and mechanics), according to TAT.

 

The combined companies now offer MRO services in eight locations; four in France, one in Belgium, and one each in Papeete (Tahiti), Noum�a (New Caledonia), and Fort-de-France (Martinique). The hangar facilities in Belgium can accommodate seven widebody airplanes at a time and also offer component services. Regional airliners are maintained and painted at TAT's Dinard-Pleurtuit-Saint Malo Airport facility, where 650 people work on regional jets and turboprops and narrowbody airliners. Heavy maintenance of both narrowbodies and widebodies is also offered at N�mes-Garons Airport, with 380 employees providing maintenance and engineering services. The Canadair CL-415 waterbombers receive heavy maintenance at N�mes-Garons during the winter months when the airplanes are off-duty. Both Tracker and Canadair waterbombers receive routine maintenance and management at a smaller TAT facility in Marseille, employing 76 people. Finally, TAT delivers parts to customers from a warehouse open 24/7 at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, which also works closely with TAT's AOG (aircraft on ground) desk.

 

TAT's strategy, according to spokesman R�gis Noy�, is to double sales every five years, "based on sustained, dynamic growth." The outlook is excellent, he added, "whether organic with an increase of market share and the creation of new joint ventures or external [growth], with the acquisition of other companies."

 

Adding Sabena Technics, which is also part of the Airbus MRO Network, is about more than increasing TAT's capability to maintain airplanes like the Airbus A330 and A340 and Boeing 757 and 767 and some military aircraft (Lockheed C130/L100 and Boeing 707 for NATO). TAT, through Sabena Technics, now also has capability for component support for Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s, putting the company in an ideal position to capitalize on airlines' desire to deal with single large suppliers. This offers, Noy� explained, "the best opportunities in the future, considering the tremendous number of [airplane] orders from charters and low-cost airlines." TAT's primary targets in the MRO marketplace are four sectors: regional airliners, Boeing 737, Airbus A320, and military aircraft.

 

TAT is not ignoring opportunities in the North American market, but business there, Noy� added, "is low. The target is to establish TAT Industries in the North American market in component maintenance on regional aircraft. Opening of a sales office in 2005 was the first step. The second step will be to buy a shop from which we will develop the business." In the Asian market, TAT will employ the same strategy, but in the narrowbody business.

 

The continued trend towards airline outsourcing will help the overall MRO market, Noy� stated, "which gives a good opportunity for independent MROs [such] as TAT Industries." Add to that trend the increasing number of aircraft being sold into the commercial market and increasing activity by A320s and 737s, and TAT sees a "a positive impact on the MRO market." -- By Matt Thurber

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