FACTORY in the field
AOG repair team helps get customers back in the air, fast
BY MIKE WIEGAND
You are suddenly jolted out of a deep sleep by the jangling telephone in the dead of night. As you fumble for the receiver, heart pounding, you glance at the clock on the nightstand 2:30 a.m. Who would be calling at this hour? You have a pretty good idea.
It's about a Boeing airplane.
The bad news is that the airplane is broken. The good news is that it won't be on the ground for long, thanks to the work you and the rest of your Boeing Aircraft on Ground incident repair team will be doing. Within a few hours, your team will be on its way to the site to survey the damage and call the information home. That phone call will initiate detailed planning and preparations to get the airplane repaired and safely on its way into revenue service again. Once authorized, a repair crew will head out to the work site with the tools and parts it needs to do the job. Soon after that, another airplane will be back in revenue service, and another tired Boeing AOG crew will be headed home.
It's about time
This activity happens 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, like clockwork which is appropriate. Jerry Smith, director of maintenance repair and component management for Commercial Aviation Services has a mantra. "Our product is time," Smith said. "Our job is to provide incident repair better and faster than the competition. Our customers need those airplanes safe and back in the sky earning revenue as soon as possible. We give them world-class repairs performed by the same people who built the airplane," he said.
Jim Testin is the AOG operations leader for Commercial Aviation Services. Testin knows all about the value of time and the demands of travel. For 17 years, he took his share of late-night calls and abrupt departures to distant destinations. He has seen almost everything when it comes to airplanes on the ground.
Waking to a nightmare
Testin was in New Delhi, India in 1988 for what is unofficially referred to as "Mission Impossible," the biggest AOG incident repair job in Boeing history. A 747 airplane aborted takeoff and ran off the end of the runway, plowing through 1,000 yards of thick mud before finally coming to a stop. Jim Roberts, the AOG team captain at the time, reported that, "the whole belly was ripped up."
Roberts wasn't exaggerating. As much as 70 percent of the airplane needed repair or replacement, and 127 mechanics, planners, engineers, and quality inspectors were dispatched to New Delhi. Another 2,000 Boeing team members supported the effort from Everett, Wash. A massive tent, referred to by the AOG team as the "New Delhi Dome," was erected over the damaged airplane to shade workers as they toiled in the 110 degrees Fahrenheit temperature. The team braved the stinging grit of 89-mile-per-hour dust storms and hordes of insects. They worked night and day as a steady flow of parts and tools streamed in. They repaired the damage two weeks ahead of schedule, and just three months after the repairs began, the 747 took flight again, "as clean as first flights that come out of the factory," according to Test Pilot Irv Decker.
Heroes with wrenches
In 1973, a Renton, Wash. AOG team was working on the repair of a damaged 707 in Cairo when Egypt and Syria declared war against Israel. As the "Yom Kippur War" erupted, the AOG team leader met with U.S. State Department representatives and Commercial Aviation Services management in the region to determine the team's best course of action. The team members were given the option of leaving the country immediately. Instead, the AOG team chose to stay and repair the airplane to the point that it could be flown to Great Britain for completion of repairs.
As the team toiled through the night, the war raged around them. There were three air raids. Ground-to-air missiles were fired, and Russian bombers fueled up just outside the repair hangar. In spite of the tangible danger all around them, the team kept working and successfully repaired the airplane enough for it to be flown out. But a new problem faced them the State Department could not obtain a guarantee of safe airspace, and the team was stranded.
The only way out was a bus ride to Tunisia, which meant 36 straight hours of rough travel and some skillful negotiation at the Libyan border. Later, as team members watched television coverage of the conflict from the safety of their Tunisia hotel rooms, they saw the bus they'd traveled in destroyed by bombs while crossing a bridge on the return trip.
Routines and teams
Not all AOG work is so eventful; in fact, much of it is fairly routine. The primary products of AOG incident repair are aircraft incident recovery, aircraft restoration surveys, aircraft incident repairs, and technical assistance. A Boeing AOG team surveyed and is helping to repair the Boeing 307 Stratoliner that went down in Puget Sound earlier this year.
Not all work involves incident-grounded airplanes. Many technical assistance jobs involve conducting maintenance or upgrade work that an airline is unable to perform. In 2001, the organization performed 81 technical assists and 84 incident repairs, providing industry-leading service.
Teamwork across the company is the key to the success of AOG incident repair, according to Smith.
"This business is accomplished with the help of people across the enterprise people from twin-aisle programs in Everett [Wash.], from single-aisle in Renton [Wash.], from Long Beach [Calif.] Maintenance Services, from Commercial Aviation Services Maintenance Services," Smith said. "We'd never be successful without our extended team."
The key to AOG success doesn't lie so much in geographically remote heroics as in strong and unwavering company support of the idea and operation, according to Testin. "The company has always, always supported us," Testin said. "Even when times have been tough, Boeing has put the customer first our company's leaders have never said ‘no' to us when we've needed something to get a customer's airplane back in the air. That's pretty amazing."
Fantasy and reality
AOG work is not for everyone. Testin still finds it surprising how many people his management team must talk to in filling positions. With approximately 300 employees responsible for watching over the nearly 12,000 Boeing jetliners flying, Testin's AOG group is very lean and makes staffing decisions with extreme care. There is often an educational step involved in screening applicants.
"There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about what we do. Some people think it's very glamorous that we go to exotic locations, stay at nice places, do a little work, see the sights," Testin said. "The reality is that this work is very intense; you have only what you brought and somehow must figure out how to get the job done no matter what. You work your scheduled shifts, finish the job and come right home."
The average AOG employee travels about 30 percent of the year around 120 days. The group tries not to let employees travel more than 50 percent of the time, even when the schedule is jammed.
"Balancing family and personal life with work is a major challenge in these jobs," Testin said. "Availability is pretty much unconditional, and obviously the more you're gone, the harder it gets to keep that balance."
The people who successfully tackle the challenge tend to be self-motivated, highly skilled, resourceful and resilient, according to Testin.
"And highly responsible," Testin said. "The responsibility level all the way down to mechanics is very high, because time is of the essence and good decisions must be made quickly. Team captains must make million-dollar decisions every day."
For what it's worth
There are intangibles that make AOG incident repair worth more than even time and money to customers and worthwhile to the people that do the work, Testin said. Following an incident in Tahiti in the early 1990s, when a 747 had run off a runway and into the water of a harbor, the surreal image brought a single thought to mind: This airplane doesn't belong here.
"Imagine what it must feel like to own an airline and see one of your big investments a 747 in the water like that," Testin said. "Imagine the stress of standing there looking at that airplane. Then imagine having a Boeing person standing right there next to you, feeling the same urgency that you feel to make the picture right and calmly explaining to you exactly how it can be done.
"That's why we do what we do."
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