Her first long flight will be her only Atlantic crossing: An expert team of pilots and technicians flew a freshly purchased Embraer 195 regional jet from Brazil to Munich, Germany, to join the Lufthansa Cityline fleet. A log of an unusual trip on board a brand-new passenger plane
Day 1: Thurday, July 19
Cruising altitude: 31000 feet; speed: 150 knots; 17:45 UTC
“The angle of attack is 12 degrees,” confirms Captain Christof Kemény. The empty passenger jet climbs steeply. If we go any slower the plane will stall. The yokes start to judder loudly. This is the warning signal that the experienced training pilot has been expecting. “We’re not exactly flying by the book,” he says with an easy grin. Other tests involve switching the engines off and on while in the air, aborting takeoff while traveling at groundspeeds of 70 knots – and nearly stalling the plane over the Atlantic some 200 miles east of Brazil. “We are pushing the airplane to the limit, technically, to see if it can right itself each time. We also want to check that the plane gives the pilot the support it is designed to provide,” Kemény explains, bringing the plane back to a normal position. All is suddenly quiet in the cockpit. The crew exchange satisfied glances and tick the right boxes on the checklist. It’s time for the next exercise.
Only two days ago, Captain Kemény arrived in Brazil as a passenger on board flight LH504 from Germany. He is part of a seven-person team of Lufthansa specialists entrusted with accepting delivery of and flying back to Munich a brand-new jet that Lufthansa ordered from Embraer for the Lufthansa CityLine fleet. The Brazilian aircraft maker builds the short- and medium- haul jets at its factory in São José dos Campos, nearly an hour and a half by car from São Paulo. The jet has already passed an array of ground tests and is ready to be put through its paces in the air during what will be its fourth flight ever. An area of airspace has been specially cordoned off. The crew has carefully planned each maneuver and has often practiced in the simulator; only a handful of staff hold the necessary qualifications. These tests are all part of the package when Lufthansa agrees to buy a new airplane. “I want to be 100-percent certain that each system in every aircraft I hand over to my colleagues is in perfect working order,” says Kemény. He executes the maneuvers that the three engineers on board need to test. Four hours later, Kemény and the Embraer test pilot Cassio Oliveira land the jet safely back at the Embraer airfield. There are still 70 items open – small glitches that Embraer must rectify before Lufthansa can accept delivery of the airplane. This kind of thing is standard procedure throughout the airline industry.
Day 2: Friday, July 20
Embraer factory, Customer Office #9
Everyone is waiting – technical fleet manager Christian Heinen, avionics technician Richard Stollenwerk, aircraft engineer Karsten Schliemann, and Peter Kessenich, the man responsible for quality control, airworthiness and technical documentation. Notebooks, bags of potato chips, cables and soft drink cans clutter up the conference table. Down in the hangar, the E195 stands gleaming beneath the spotlights, always within view thanks to a large office window. Thick fog made this morning’s second scheduled test, or “shakedown,” flight impossible, it has to be postponed until the afternoon. During the shakedown flight, the experts check whether the irregularities noted the day before have been put right. The test flight experts are among the most experienced in their field and responsible for ensuring that the new plane complies with all of Lufthansa’s standards. Every day their list of queries grows longer, and the checking process can take hours. Even dates have to be rigorously checked. “We have to be able to rule out the possibility of computer errors recurring on odd or even-numbered calendar dates,” explains Heinen.
The nickname “Brazilian princess” suits the graceful airplane down to the ground. There’s nothing heavy or chunky about this sporty jet, which joined the Lufthansa fleet as a sort of dowry when Lufthansa and SWISS were joined. Back then, some pilots irreverantly called the cutting-edge aircraft a “flying laptop” with too much technology, too many automated processes, and too little scope for human control. But the arranged marriage grew into a loving partnership. The head-up display and other advanced technical aids make the Embraer safe and reliable to fly – often by hand – and have won pilots over completely. Right now, though, this plane still belongs to the manufacturer. On the tail, its German registration is as yet concealed beneath layers of black film – and the head-up display is causing problems for the fleet manager and his team. “A horizontal line keeps slipping on the right. That’s no good,” Heinen explains. The component will have to be replaced. But not until Monday; weekends are sacred in Brazil, just like in Germany. The number of open items is now 80.
Day 3: Monday, July 23
The lobby of a hotel situated near a freeway interchange
Copilot Gregor Winkler has only just arrived by plane from Frankfurt. Already, he will have to tell his wife that he will return somewhat later than expected. Winkler was originally scheduled to fly the new Embraer back to Germany with Captain Kemény on Tuesday, but that’s out of the question now. The green line on the head-up display isn’t positioned properly, and there are 43 other items still open. Fleet manager Heinen and Captain Kemény decide to postpone the flight to the following day: Wednesday. Gregor Winkler reaches for his smartphone.
Day 4: Tuesday, July 24
In the Embraer hangar, 14:10 local time
The E195 is jacked up and suspended above the hangar floor. The landing gears drop from the flaps without actuating the hydraulic systems, just as they should. The plane passes this particular test with flying colors. Nonetheless, 26 items still to be remedied. The flight to Germany is postponed once more. “Spending half their life in vain, pilots wait to board their plane,” quotes Gregor Winkler.
Day 5: Wednesday, July 25
Customer Office #9, 2nd floor
Only nine items are still open, but the crew is growing optimistic. In the past eight days, Kessenich has had to number 1430 components and enter them in an Excel chart. The quality controller has made spot checks on hundreds of registered items and created a “CV file” for the plane. Over its upcoming decades of service, this CV will be used to check, verify and document for posterity every incidence of damage and every maintenance cycle. Kessenich is all set to fly home to his native Cologne. Rudolf Bach, on the other hand, has just called the airline to postpone the scheduled flight he had booked for that afternoon. The Lufthansa representative is in charge of the financial side of the purchase. The all-clear finally comes in the evening: Every problem has been remedied. Bach calls Citibank in New York and prepares the money transfer.
Day 6: Thursday, July 26
Customer Office #9, 10:54 local time, at the conference table
Christian Heinen, Rudolf Bach and Embraer representative Marc Thomas Ahlgrimm sign the purchase contract and the acceptance certificate in triplicate – in blue ballpoint ink, which is the only valid kind. Two and a half hours ago, Lufthansa transfered a sum in the high, two-digit millions to Embraer. The Brazilian registration is rubbed off and the new German code D-AEBR emerges from beneath the black film. When you buy an aircraft as opposed to a car, the first full tank of fuel is always free; that’s 12,800 kilos of kerosene. The lifeboats and life jackets on board are only on loan and will later be returned to Brazil. The Germans have brought their own first-aid kit with them. Each member of the team carries his own baggage on board, the Brazilian and German engineers embrace. “We worked closely together and learned a lot from each other,” says Heinen. “Mutual trust is a tremendously important factor in a project of this kind. Embraer was quite exemplary.” Once the new plane is up in air, copilot Gregor Winkler tips its wings in a farewell wave.
Recife International Airport, North Brazil, 17:34 UTC
Layover at Aeroporto do Recife: Instead of what will soon be 120 passengers, four technicians step onto the tarmac, squinting in the sunshine on the blistering hot asphalt. The kerosene tank is filled to the brim for the long flight across the Atlantic. The crew walks through passport control and customs in a separate area, where Captain Kemény is waved into an office and greeted with a warm handshake. This is his ninth delivery flight, and he knows the people here. One of the officals fills out some forms and receipts. Instead of a computer, a large fan hums in the corner. Kemény uses his company credit card to pay the landing and takeoff fees of 5,244 reais – nearly 2,000 euros.
20:16 UTC, 41,000 feet above the equator
The sky is bathed in a warm orange glow and the sun sets as though on cue as flight LH9940 crosses the equator. The sound track to Apollo 13 blares from the cabin speakers; in the aisle, Captain Kemény holds a short speech. The men in the cockpit toast each other with soft drinks, while in the cabin, the engineers busy themselves with in-flight service. A short pillow fight is followed by a round of foil-wrapped cheese sandwiches. Some of the engineers press their cell phone cameras to the windows, others play patience on their laptop or watch a TV crime episode from the media center. The tension of the past few days begins to seep away. The pilots test the technicians’ patience by reciting traditional German Christmas rhymes and fleet manager Heinen responds with a ribald rhyme. “It was a pleasant and uneventful flight,” says aircraft engineer Karsten Schliemann. No open items anymore.
Day 7: Friday, July 27
Touchdown in Gran Canaria, 0:36 UTC
It’s late at night when, tired but happy, the crew heads for bed at Resort H10 on Playa Meloneras. The pilots have to take their prescribed 12-hour rest and the jet needs refueling. After breakfast, it’s back to the airport – no time out for this team. Captain Kemény points the jet northward toward Toulouse, flies over Geneva and Lake Constance and arrives in Munich at 18:30 local time. Home at last, the plane touches down gently after completing the 6,079 miles of the longest journey she will ever make.