‘There could be snakes’: planes mothballed by Covid prepare to fly again | Air transport



In the red dust of the Australian desert, more than a hundred shiny planes are lined up nose to tail, an aviation long-term parking lot.Hundreds more form geometric patterns in California’s Mojave Desert, where engineers whack the wheel hubs of Qantas A380s to scare off rattlesnakes.When Covid forced the world to stop, planes were herded into enormous storage areas across the United States, Europe, and just outside of Alice Springs, Australia. And now it’s time to rip off the plastic, power up the engines, and prepare for takeoff once more.A week ago Qantas chief Alan Joyce stood in front of a 787 and talked about the “light at the end of the tunnel” as vaccination rates rise and borders open. He announced old routes would start up again, and new routes would join them. The first Qantas A380 will arrive in Australia on Christmas Day, he said, and a second will be in place by April.Only three months ago they were planning to keep them in the desert for longer, he said. “That’s how fast things are moving and how optimistic we are to meet the demand, that we’re bringing two of them forward … one of them before Christmas, one for training and crew.”Many Qantas planes are in California, while Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage near Alice Springs is a temporary home for planes owned by Jetstar, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Tigerair and more. Apas had to keep expanding as the pandemic mothballed more planes, and opened a second site in Queensland.University of New South Wales aerospace design senior lecturer Dr Sonya Brown explains that while the craft are in hibernation, engineers work hard to stop encroaching wildlife and rust. Ports and openings must be sealed, and the oil drained and replaced with a preservative oil – a process called “pickling”.Then there is a raft of procedures to get them safely airborne again.Grounded aeroplanes at the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage facility in Alice Springs, Australia. Photograph: Steve Strike/Getty ImagesEarlier this year the European Union Aviation Safety Agency warned of an “alarming trend in the number of reports of unreliable speed and altitude indications during the first flight(s) following the aircraft leaving storage, caused by contaminated air data systems”.Planes were forced to halt takeoffs or turn back because of “foreign objects” such as insect nests in pitot static systems, pressure-sensitive equipment which provides critical air data information such as airspeed.“Wildlife intrusion is certainly one of the big things with storage – insects and bird nests,” Brown says. “There are a lot of visual checks for animals and the like.“Insects can get into air data lines – they’re a particular concern because they’re what help the aircraft understand how high they are, how fast they’re going. You have to flush them with nitrogen to make sure they’re fully clear.“And there could be snakes, more likely around the landing gear.”June was rattlesnake season in the Californian desert and Qantas engineering manager Tim Heywood says the team came up with a “wheel whacker” for each aircraft.“The area is well known for its feisty ‘rattlers’ who love to curl up around the warm rubber tyres and in the aircraft wheels and brakes,” he says, so maintenance crew stomp their feet and whack the wheels to scare them off.(The critical “wheel whacker”, part of the engineering kit, is a repurposed broom handle.)Brown says planes are stored in arid areas, away from humidity. Any openings are sealed, parts get wrapped in plastic, while those insects and birds get turfed.The engines are powered up regularly, and the wheels are rotated so they don’t get flat spots. Those that have to be left in metropolitan airports like Sydney, where many staff are still based, might have the air conditioner run to clear out the moisture.Airbus recommends that planes are parked on a flat surface with the nose pointing into the wind to limit the effect of wind gusts. In some cases chocks are needed to keep the wheels in place as there is no hydraulic pressure for the parking brakes.And it is “strongly advised that operators avoid using improvised or unapproved items to protect the aircraft and its components”.And as more routes get opened up, more will be put through their paces.Each plane has a specific maintenance manual that details how they are to be taken out of hibernation. All the protective plugs and covers have to be removed, the tires pressure-tested.Brown says the software has to be checked and updated, and all sealed areas will be inspected. Then there are operational checks on all aircraft systems, from avionics to flight control systems.“They’ll power them up, preferably to the highest levels they’d expect to see in takeoff and in flight,” she says.“It’s very important with long-term storage there are landing gear checks as well.”To do that, aircraft at Alice Springs will be flown to Sydney with no passengers and the landing gear down, so Sydney engineers can do the final checks.The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has put out a series of high-level checklists for pilots as they return to operations. They include checking for lockdown fatigue or stress, making sure skills are up to scratch, and watching out for long grass, and more birds and animals on runways after periods of inactivity.The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has announced the international travel ban for Australians will lift on 1 November, and hopes for quarantine-free travel bubbles between Australia and Singapore, followed by Bangkok, Phuket, Johannesburg and Fiji. The agreement stands for all states and territories, although they are in varying stages of openness themselves.Qantas announced this week that as it resumes international flights for the first time in 20 months, it will offer more vegetarian food options, and even a signature cocktail to celebrate its return. There will also be a digital travel guide to help passengers navigate the complicated world of vaccine passports, mask mandates, and other Covid-proofing measures.Most international airlines will likely only accept vaccinated passengers, while others will take small numbers of unvaccinated people who will still face hotel quarantine.Apas managing director Tom Vincent says his storage site, with those wingtips gleaming in the desert sun, will still be needed as old planes are reactivated or retired ones disassembled.“To call us a boneyard is a blight on what we do,” he says.



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