Learning by doing

Boeing 737-500

  • TEXT TIM CAPPELMANN
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

Apprentices at Lufthansa Technik get to know the aircraft inside out as they perform the necessary maintenance jobs on their very own aircraft. Lufthansa Magazin was on the spot when they ran a standard 30-day check on their Boeing 737

Boeing 737-500

Before the auxiliary power unit at the rear of the plane can be hoisted, the plane is towed onto the apron – with apprentices to guide its way

© Jens Görlich

 The apron at Frankfurt Airport, seven in the morning. Two trainees stand beside the hulk of a Boeing 737-500, their gaze fixed on a small lamp. In front of them, a humming box on wheels bearing the legend “Power. Anytime. Anywhere.” This is the diesel generator that supplies the airplane with electricity. Sebastian Kraus and his colleague Christian Lühring, both trainees, are ensconced in the cockpit. “You almost feel like a pilot up here,” says Lühring with a grin. Not that either of them will ever take a plane into the air themselves – once they have completed their training as aircraft mechanics, they will play a vital role in ensuring the technical reliability and safety of the Lufthansa fleet. But during the course of learning their trade, they also get to spend time in the cockpit. Sitting in the captain’s seat on the left, Kraus flips a switch and speaks the words “Emergency lights on” into his headset. Outside the airplane – no lights come on. Silence reigns for a moment. The list price of the tiny, airworthy lamp and housing is 1648 dollars, even though it looks like something you could buy at a DIY store for 10 euros. The young men set about finding the fault. open up the lamp mounting on the fuselage, attach a measuring instrument to the contacts. The indicator pin leaps into action, which means there is a current. “Things don’t look so bad,” says one of the boys. Once the bulb is changed, the team can cross that item off their list: All lights on the airplane are working again.

Maintenance is a regular part of the Boeing 737’s compulsory 30-day check. For training purposes, the inspection is condensed into just three calendar days. Also, it’s anything but routine. The airplane came as something of a Christmas present, landing punctually in Frankfurt on December 23, 2011. Lufthansa Technik had ordered it especially for its training subsidiary, Lufthansa Technical Training (LTT). “Providing us with an aircraft of this class is a mark of LTT’s high standard of quality and also a unique selling proposition of our company,” says Martin Brandes, LTT training manager in Frankfurt. A team of training officers spent months devising a new training program, and apprentices have been working on an actual Boeing since the summer of 2012. All of them are training to be aircraft maintenance mechanics and avionics technicians, between 18 and 20, and at the end of their second year.

Boeing 737-500

Flying classroom: The apprentices learn their craft on the new training plane, keeping the Boeing 737-500 in perfect working order and ready for takeoff anytime

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 737-500

Cabin briefing: Training officer Matthias Knapp discusses the day’s duties with his apprentices

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 737-500

Ignition: Before the engines can be started, they have to be opened. The training officers hold the key

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 737-500

A turn in the pilot’s seat: During the 30-day check, the apprentices also have to switch on all systems in the cockpit. Sebastian Kraus, on the left, is in radio contact with his colleagues outside the plane, who are there to check that all signal lamps, rudders and flaps are in order

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 737-500

Two apprentices check the APU at the rear of the aircraft

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 737-500

Pressure at 1200 psi? Training officer Matthias Lück shows apprentices Timo Lemmer and Sebastian Kraus (from left) how to check the nitrogen level in the telescopic leg of the left landing gear

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 737-500

Safety first: Some of the flight system switches should on no account be flipped by mistake – thankfully, there’s a red warning sign

© Jens Görlich

 “It’s hard to imagine a better way to dovetail theory and practise,” says Brandes, explaining the great advantage of the new training plane. The Boeing has alreadey spent 42,172 hours in the air. Now the apprentices keep it in such good condition that it could go into regular operation for Lufthansa anytime. In the past, much of the work could only be taught in theory, on individual components or under massive time pressure during actual flight operations with no room for mistakes. Now the apprentices are still learning just as intensively, but with the opportunity to repeat all sequences and repairs under the personal supervision of their training officers.

“Having our own plane is something special,” says Philipp Müller, one of the six here today, “I enjoy the work much more.” The work on this shift: towing the plane out onto the apron, hoisting the APU up at the tail end of the plane, starting all of the systems in the cockpit, working on the engine, checking the hydraulics, and adjusting the rudder and the elevator. The young men form teams of two at the airplane. Their training officers watch their charges closely. They also teach them not only to trust their eyes and the instruments, but also to be aware of smells, to feel for loose fittings and to notice if air is escaping.

Step by step they work down the checklists, peer closely at everything, recording what’s been done. They check the landing flaps and batteries, lubricate moving parts, pump up tires with non-flammable nitrogen. Is it just like in real life? “Yes, almost,” says apprentice Müller, “but we have less responsibility than under real conditions in the hangar, so it’s less stressful.” His training officer, Matthias Knapp, adds, “The apprentices can afford to make mistakes here that would be really costly in the hangar.” Everyone was a bit nervous to begin with, uncertain about how the new program would work. It’s a big responsibility. “One wrong move and they could destroy the plane!” says a grinning Knapp for all to hear. His apprentices grin back. He already has a good gut feeling. “The confidence is there. They’re all working pretty independently. Some tend to overshoot the mark a little, others need encouragement, it’s all a question of personality,” he explains, “but we are very pleased.”