John Hamilton, a mech anic for Stewart Industries, adjusts an access panel under the wing of an American Airline MD-80, during a recent afternoon. (Emily Russo Miller Photo)
The chief inspector for Stewart Industries, Richard Duran, stood on the east side of the Roswell International Air Center one recent morning and watched exhaust fumes pour from the tail cone of an Airbus A-3005. A team of mechanics coughed and waved away the billowing gray smoke surrounding them.
Duran inhaled deeply. â€œ”Nothing better than jet fuel in the morning,â€ he said smiling.
A smoking airplane is generally cause for alarm, but in this case, it was part of an â€œidle leak checkâ€ whereby mechanics rev the aircraftâ€™s engine for about five minutes to test for fuel leaks. Itâ€™s just one of the many small daily operations performed by the airplane storage facility.
The Roswell airport may appear small to the unscrutinizing eye. After all, it operates just three flights a day to just one city on just one airline.
But on the other side of the tarmac, far from the eyes of passengers, the airport serves as the biggest hub of industrial manufacturing activity in Chaves County. It operates one of only a handful of aircraft storage facilities in the country.
Three corporations store or dismantle planes on the tarmac: Stewart Industries, AerSale and Bergman Air. SI is currently in the process of dismantling two planes.
Duran eyeballs the planes sitting side-by-side on the tear down pad and says, â€œIn six weeks, theyâ€™ll be beer cans.â€
But before the planes are flattened, they must first go through a lengthy process.
The owner of the plane, usually an airline company, first decides whether it wants the plane to be dismantled to sell the parts to a third party, overhauled to be flown again, or stored either permanently or temporarily.
If the plane is to be dismantled, a team of seven to 10 FAA Airframe and Powerplant certified mechanics conduct a process called aircraft tear down, or ACTD. One crew, led by the â€œdismantling lead,â€ is assigned per plane.
The first order of business is to remove the fuel from the aircraft while it is 100 percent intact, so the owner of the plane has the option of selling the fuel to a petroleum company.
Next, the crew takes apart electronic and aviation components found in the cockpit and elsewhere. These items â€” antennas, radio equipment, flight controls, the auxiliary power unit which produces air and electricity to start the engine, engine fire bottles and cockpit gauges â€” are called avionics.
The avionics are then taken to SI-based Hanger 84 where another SI team sorts and identifies the different parts. The parts are tagged with an FAA service tag 8130-3, an authorized release certificate that states the part has been approved for â€œairworthiness.â€
After they are properly tagged, more warehouse workers wrap the avionics in pink bubble wrap (which is antistatic for electronic parts) then log the information into SIâ€™s internal databank.
Quada Farr, a warehouse lead who was tagging avionics of an former American Airline plane at the time of the interview, says avionics are very valuable in the â€œaftermarketâ€ because they are always in high demand. Buying used avionics, such as the ones she was sorting, is usually a quicker alternative than buying new parts for operational planes.
â€œYou need parts in the aftermarket to keep planes flying,â€ Farr said. â€œTrying to find new parts can take months, sometimes nine months for a Boeing.â€
While the warehouse mechanics continue to sort and tag, the dismantling team tackles the aircraftâ€™s exterior by removing doors, engines, tires and wings. A stockpile of these items sit outside of the hangar waiting to be picked up from various contractors and companies.
It takes about six to eight weeks for an airplane to be completely dismantled. After the process is complete, the customer does a walk-through to examine the plane. The customer then decides whether to sell the remaining metal now or later, depending on how the metal market is faring.
â€œThey’ll wait for the metal market to get better,â€ Duran said. â€œEverything is governed by the price of something.”
If the customer decides to scrap the metal, the plane is taken down to the â€œscrap padâ€ at the end of the tarmac where Caterpillar equipment, or as the mechanics call it â€œPac-Man jaws,â€ flattens the hollow plane like a beer can.
Alternatively, sometimes planes are sold to national aircraft removal companies, like Aircraft Recycling Center, which recycles the aluminum from the plane.
When a customer decides he should store a plane rather than dismantle it, it is inducted officially into SIâ€™s storage program. SI generally stores aircraft for two major airline companies: American Airlines and UPS. About 90 airplanes, mainly MD-80s, A-300s and 747s, are presently parked a few miles from the tear down pad.
Stewart Industries director of sales Jim Barker said each plane in storage has a task card that instructs workers how often and what precisely needs to be maintained. Planes marked with a task card that reads A or B require ongoing in-operational checks, whereas C and D checks require major overhaul. The task card also specifies if the plane needs to be maintained every seven, 15, 30, 60, 90, 180 or 365 days.
â€œStoring keeps aircraft in a condition that allows them to be returned to service without major overhaul,â€ Barker said.
Some planes in storage require maintenance checks on a regular basis so they can be ready to fly again on short notice. Day-to-day maintenance, called â€œdailies,â€ are performed by mechanics like John Hamilton, who is from Arkansas by way of Texas, and has worked for SI for the past two years.
â€œIt takes no time at all to get one up and ready to go,â€ Hamilton said while inspecting the underbelly of an access panel on a 747.
During the summer, the doors of the planeâ€™s cabin are left open to create air flow and ensure the door seals do not crack. Plane windows are also insulated with mylar, metalized plastic sheeting that reflects sunlight and heat to prevent deterioration. Two MD-80s in storage will be flying for American Airlines by the end of the year.
Still on the tear down pad with the two planes being dismantled, a mechanic approaches Duran. â€œYou smoked us out for a bit,â€ Duran accused the man jokingly, referring to the exhaust fumes.
â€œYeah, it was dripping, spewing and making a mess,â€ the man replied.
â€œWell, now we know what we have to do.”