Emerging from COVID inactivity is not just a challenge for living, breathing things. It can also be tough on airplanes and their components after long periods of inactivity.
“They don’t like sit-itis,” said Greg Hamelink, senior manager of flight operations and maintenance for Kalamazoo, MI-based medical company Stryker Corp. Hamelink, who chairs the NBAA Maintenance Committee, is responsible for the care and feeding of a Bombardier Global Express and a pair of Dassault Falcon 2000LXSs. “When COVID-19 hit, we went from an average of 1,500 hours of flying per year [averaging 500 hours per aircraft] to zero,” he said.
In establishing best practices for such an unprecedented situation, Stryker worked with the OEMs to determine how best to “exercise” the jets. At the beginning of the pandemic, Stryker ran the engines at least twice a month, and taxied the aircraft to check brakes and hydraulic pressure.
“We gave them a full workout, going through all the procedures as if we were about to take off,” said Hamelink. “We’d go all the way to takeoff status to be sure we had no CAS [crew-alerting system] messages.”
As the months wore on, Stryker resumed limited flying, taking the jets out every two weeks to run the engines. On every other one of those “sorties” they would actually fly. The flights were planned to satisfy crew currency, especially for night operations. Hamelink said his department also developed a punch list for maintenance items on the currency flights, such as performing a ram air turbine test on the Global.
“Managers need to be more risk-aware and focused, taking time to brief and mitigate, if required, to manage workloads as they ramp up.”
Ed Mursko Manager of Aircraft Maintenance, 3M
Ed Mursko, manager of aircraft maintenance for 3M, agrees that an airplane “likes to be running and not sitting.” He kept a similar “workout” schedule for the company’s three Gulfstreams. “All aircraft were kept flight ready and ran every two weeks. And the crews flew recurrent flights.”
But Mursko noted that it’s not just the airplanes that suffer from inactivity. “[Maintenance] employees were also in mothballs.” Routine tasks are not necessarily routine now, he explained. As flight schedules increase, this issue could result in an incident, especially as multiple tasks are layered over each other.
Managers need to be more risk-aware and focused, says Mursko, taking time to brief and mitigate, if required, to manage workloads as they ramp up. He cited the step-by-step process for single-point refueling as an example of a procedure that, previously automatic, went a little sideways.
“We almost delayed a trip troubleshooting an issue with our fuel farm,” he said. “Come to find out, the technician forgot to open the valve on the fueling hose coupling. For us, it was the ‘canary in the coal mine’ moment. It’s a time to fall back heavily on your SMS and slow down,” he said.
Ian Young, a contract maintenance manager for Executive Jet Management, is assigned to care for a CT-based Global 6000. On some flights to “stretch the wings out” they would take the jet up to 40,000 feet to cold soak it and check for systems discrepancies.
For example, they were able to identify problems with an air data computer, a pitot-static tube and a slat-flap controller. He said being able to address those squawks during the pandemic eliminated what could have disrupted the owner’s busy travel schedule had they not been spotted before the return to regular flying.
As operations return to a more normal schedule – or potentially ramp up to make up for lost travel time – it’s important to slow down and refocus when it comes to what used to be a regular routine.