Olympic Airways still keeps planes aloft, but from the ground

Grounded it may be, with its flight operations hived off to a new company (Olympic Airlines), Olympic Airways’ finances and functioning may never have stood out in comparison with other national air carriers in its 46 years of operation. However, OA, which still retains ground, cargo and technical services, is among the best in the world in terms of flight safety and aircraft maintenance. Since 1946, when the first hangar was built at the old airport at Hellenikon by the then-Technical and Aeronautical Exploitation (TAE) company to accommodate the nose and engines of a DC-3, much water has flowed under the bridge with regard to aircraft maintenance in Greece. Away from passenger eyes in the northern sector of Eleftherios Venizelos, Athens’s new international airport, Olympic Airways’ technical operations have their home. There, at an ultra-modern complex covering 25,000 square meters and which cost 102.7 million euros (35 billion drachmas) to build, the company’s engineers check the airplanes from nose to tail in order to keep the Olympic fleet in tip-top flight condition. A tour of the new base yielded the rare sight of an Airbus 300-600 undergoing check C – that is, heavy maintenance of a plane that has completed 3,000 hours of flying time. The big plane had literally been taken apart. Its huge, complex engines had been dismounted from their fittings, the cockpit seats and navigation instruments had been removed, the seats, wallpaper and carpeting of the passenger cabin had been sent for cleaning, the fuselage and tail had been dismantled and the flap hinges were being checked. Six different checks Over 30 technicians with special tools, divided into teams, went over every square inch of the dismantled plane, bit by bit, to find out if any part needed to be maintained, changed or repaired. The scene, with technicians and inspectors in their white coats and gloves, more resembled a medical clinic than a workshop. «That’s exactly what happens here. The plane undergoes a checkup and we examine everything very carefully, from a screw to an engine,» said Christos Bardopoulos, one of the oldest engineers at technical operations who is a specialist in heavy maintenance. A few meters further on, an inspector holding a torch, mirror and measuring stick has literally burrowed into one of the engines, checking the distances between the vanes inch by inch. Check C involves modifications such as changing cockpit doors in accordance with new international regulations but also close checks on wear and tear, such as cracks in metal. In the section called non-destructive checks (performed in order to detect surface or structural defects in a part without changing its physical condition), engineer Alekos Douros shows us a metal engine part and asks us if we can tell him if it is in good condition. It looked fine, we told him. But he then explained to us that the part, despite its smooth appearance and total absence of surface cracks, was shattered. «We use six different checks to confirm if there is wear or fatigue in materials such as this. We put them through eddy current inspection, ultrasonic and borescope tests, magnetic particle inspection, fluorescent penetrants and X-rays. That is just like the doctor who carries out an endoscopy, so we examine whatever can’t be seen by the human eye. Nothing is hidden from us,» Douros said. The adjacent engine support shop had six engineers checking the compressors of the CFM-56-3 engine, which is used by a Boeing 737-400. Supervisor Pantelis Grigoriadis gave us a tour of the area and showed us how the technicians examined the combustion chambers and fuel sprayers or the thrust inverters of an the Airbus 300-600. These two sections always closely cooperate with personnel in heavy maintenance, and constitute two of the most sensitive sectors in the whole facility. A C check lasts about a month from the moment the airplane enters the hangar and the scaffolding is placed round it. As soon as the checks have been completed, tests and measurements are carried out on the basis of each manufacturer’s instructions manual. But a test flight is needed to bring complete satisfaction. The pilot takes his seat at the controls, and his passengers are the technicians who have worked on the plane from beginning to end. It’s a longstanding custom at technical operations. «We fly the plane to its limits, and then some more. We switch off the engines during flight and turn them on again, we almost stall the plane to test the rudder… and even try out touch-and-go landings at airports. It’s a unique experience,» said Christos Bardopoulos smiling. «And it’s not recommended for heart patients.» He has flown 20 such flights. From the far end of the hangar comes a deafening noise. On the flightline, where airplanes are checked before leaving the base, an engineer monitors another A300-600 engine. During the procedure, termed a run-up, each engine is pushed to 110 percent capacity with the brakes on. With 120,000 pounds of thrust from both running engines, the plane shudders all over. «The thrust here almost exceeds aircraft speed at takeoff and the test is carried out so we can make the necessary measurements. When everything is working at full stretch, that’s an incomparable high,» said the engineers, who don’t hide that there are times when they fight over who will carry out the test. Among the best For years, Olympic Airways technicians have been regarded as some of the best in the world, both for the level of maintenance of the planes and their expertise. At training schools they attend abroad, side by side with engineers from other firms, they invariably come first. Each attends two or three training sessions on aircraft types at the technical facility per year. The OA training center is considered one of the top three in Europe. Company executives like technical operations General Director Athanassios Aris or training manager Michalis Kasapos enjoy the esteem of manufacturing companies and engineers of all airlines. But most impressive are the awards won by technical operations for engine modifications recognized by companies like Boeing. A few years ago, a project was launched to improve flaps and fuselages from which the engines were suspended in Boeing 747 aircraft. It took place on Greek soil, with the cooperation of Boeing, which sent its technicians. New parts made of titanium and stainless steel were installed in the craft, while fuselage support was improved. After the project, Boeing gave Olympic Airways an award in recognition of the high standards of its technicians. Not by accident, Olympic’s technical operations are among a handful in the world with a permit from manufacturing companies to test and monitor crucial parts of the aircraft. Besides expertise, engineers need caution, for the job carries with it hidden dangers. Older hands still remember June 1987, when during an engine test for a Boeing that would be carrying the prime minister, the engineer overseeing the trial was literally sucked forward by the engine, and suffered serious head and hand injuries. He lost a finger and the use of his right hand. Times have changed. The technicians hope for even better tools in the future, imagining themselves with a laptop apiece, on which they will be able to check with manufacturing manuals in electronic form. It’s a distinct possibility – if Olympic Airways still exists.