Back to the future

  • TEXT TIM CAPPELMANN
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

The Boeing 747-8 is one of the jewels of the Lufthansa fleet. A retro version harks back to the days when the first Jumbo took to the skies: Yankee Tango features an eye-catching 1970s paint job. Before commercial services could commence the aircraft in the U.S. was subjected to meticulous inspection

There she stands, the queen of the skies! White body enveloped in thick morning fog, gleaming black nose, elegantly curved wings and characteristic hump. The Boeing 747-8 has four engines, each of them so large that three men can comfortably stand up inside. Their combined power is equal to that of more than 3000 cars, but the noise they make when they start up is only a third of that made by the plane’s predecessor, the Boeing 747-400.

The design of the original Boeing 747, the brainchild of legendary U.S. aircraft engineer Joe Sutter, has been around for decades and has stood the test of time. Lufthansa was as actively involved in the development of the original jumbo jet as it was in that of the 747-8 – an aircraft that embodies not only the art of engineering, but also the airline’s history and tradition like no other. A new Lufthansa “Dash 8” now evokes that earlier era by sporting a 1970s Lufthansa livery, with a blue stripe along the cabin windows, a more delicately drawn crane, a black nose instead of a white one, and a small German flag adorning the tail. The underbelly of the D-ABYT, known by its last two letters as the “Yankee Tango,” is the only area where a tradeoff was made. “In the past, they would polish up the metal, producing a silvery shine,” explains Lufthansa designer Ronald Wild, “but doing that to today’s alloys, which are coated with an anti-corrosive primer, would make no sense. And maintenance would cost too much.” The compromise: a silver mica paint with a metallic effect reminiscent of the original look.

The list price of a brand-new Boeing 747-8 is approximately 360 million dollars, and Lufthansa has ordered 19 planes. But as a regular customer of the aircraft manufacturer in Everett, Washington, near Seattle, Lufthansa gets a discount. Nevertheless, each flagship plane is a major investment. Once in operation, a 747-8 guarantees as many jobs as a medium-sized company. This is also why accepting delivery of each new plane involves a two-week trip to the Boeing facility, during which a team of experienced mechanics, pilots and engineers goes over the plane with a checklist, making sure everything’s tip top.

Lufthansa Captain Uwe Strohdeicher (left) and co-pilot Markus Imlig in the cockpit, navigating

Lufthansa Captain Uwe Strohdeicher (left) and co-pilot Markus Imlig in the cockpit, navigating

© Jens Görlich
Volker Harms carefully inspects First Class

Volker Harms carefully inspects First Class

© Jens Görlich
efects and flaws are marked with red tape

efects and flaws are marked with red tape

© Jens Görlich
The fan measures 2.67 meters across

The fan measures 2.67 meters across

© Jens Görlich
High flyers: The Lufthansa Technik experts take a close look at the rudder

High flyers: The Lufthansa Technik experts take a close look at the rudder

© Jens Görlich

“Our activities all interlock, it’s the only way,” says Werner Scholz, ­Luft­hansa Acceptance Manager. Every day, he sends an update to the people at Lufthansa headquarters in Germany, who are waiting impatiently to begin regular passenger services on schedule. “In the end, we’re all working toward the same goal – and we can’t go back without the plane,” says Scholz, laughing. “Frankfurt would have our heads!” The schedule is tight for this dedicated team that always aims to deliver a perfect plane. Every day of delay costs money. “A project like this is a real challenge, even for the best and brightest in the industry,” says Scholz.

The inspectors working in the fog on Lufthansa’s number 18 “Dash 8” have some 158 years of experience, combined. Armed with flashlights, telescope mirrors, red tape and a notebook, the team of five men and one woman descend on the retro-liveried plane to inspect its exterior. The cabin inspection is scheduled for the following day. Boeing workers accompany the team from Germany, taking notes on their laptops. The inspectors mark and number each item with tape.

Inspector Jörg Martin stands on a step ladder with a flashlight in his mouth, marking a spot beside a wiring harness on the fuselage. “The way they’ve been clamped, these cables could chafe,” he explains, catching the flashlight that slipped out of his mouth when he opened it to talk. The team members probe, touch, sniff and wiggle everything in sight as they make their way through the plane, all their senses engaged. Moving at 900 kilometers per hour 11 000 meters above the earth, what might be fine on the ground is exposed to enormous forces in the air. “That’s why it’s so important that we’re experienced,” says Martin, “we can judge what might become a problem later on.”

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Toward the rear of the plane, Martin’s colleague Ulrich Boesch is ten meters above the ground in a cherry picker, carefully inspecting the outer surface of the plane. “A little bit of orange peel has developed during painting, but that’s not a problem,” he growls, as his attention is caught by something else. Pulling out his phone, he snaps a picture of a faint bulge in the aircraft’s skin, which is only visible when lit from a certain angle. He presses down on it. “This will have to be redone, something must have buckled here.” On goes a strip of tape and then it’s off to the next thing.

The 747-8 lies comfortably in the air and is a pleasure to fly

Lufthansa Captain Streicher

The inspectors are not here to see if the 747-8 will fly or whether all of its systems work; that job has already been done by Boeing and the U.S. civil aviation authority. They’re here for all the small things that, when added up, can have an adverse effect on fuel efficiency, such as rough edges, tiny dents, “hidden sources of resistance,” as well as elements that could begin to chafe or stick up and cause problems – if not immediately, then conceivably later on. The inspectors have noted down 180 such minor shortcomings in order of importance. “You have to be very specific,” Boesch explains with a grin: “If I put down that something or other needs to be repaired, something or other will be repaired.” Boeing’s technicians work through the “hot item list” as quickly as they can, but leave less urgent things to be dealt with in Frankfurt.

 

Inspector Horst Wolff breathes out noisily and pushes his glasses back into his long hair. “It’s hard to know where to start,” he sighs and jiggles the loose banister of the stairway leading up to the upper level of Business Class on the double-decker aircraft. Like his colleagues, Wolff is qualified to approve and accept delivery of factory-fresh aircraft and their components. In the cabin, the experts find loose cabinets, seats and tables, as well as carpet edges that are sticking up. Everyone is wearing white, surgical overshoes on their feet. Boeing’s Dave Engel takes notes on his laptop. Much of the cabin interior is not Boeing’s work at all but that of contractors. Are the Germans more particular than other customers? “They’re too much like us,” exclaims the Boeing man, and laughs. “We share a commitment to quality, and communication is very good. I wouldn’t work any other way.” For years, the same team has been coming to Seattle from Hamburg and Frankfurt. “We know each other, we trust each other, and the atmosphere is good,” says Engel: “That helps.”

Sixteen days later, the “Yankee Tango” is ready to take off on its first flight across the Atlantic. On runway One Six Right, Lufthansa captain Uwe Stroh­deicher accelerates to 147 knots and takes off, dipping his wings twice in farewell. “Considering that this plane has only seen eight hours of flight, it is well trimmed, lies comfortably in the air, maneuvers easily and is a pleasure to fly,” he says. En route to Europe, the three pilots in the cockpit admire the northern lights on the horizon. Nine hours later, they land safely in Frankfurt, the retro jumbo jet has found his place in the fleet, operating on regular routes.