Up, up and away! The marvels of aircraft maintenance

picture of a centennial college aviation technician aircraft maintenance student leaning next to an airplane

It was more than 100 years ago the Wright brothers invented the first powered aircraft, built with a wooden frame, cotton cloth and a 12-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. While it only made it into the air for less than 60 seconds, it was aptly named the "Flyer," and marked the beginning of a new age of transportation (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum).

Today (as I write this), there are almost 8,000 aircraft flying in the skies above (flightradar24.com), including various models of Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier. Whether a flight lasts an hour or 20, safety is always top priority. So it goes without saying just how specialized a skill set one must have to work in this field, which is exactly the kind knowledge you can get through Centennial College’s Aviation Technician – Aircraft Maintenance program. Read on to find out how aviation technicians ensure passenger safety, one plane at a time.

Daily Checks – Also referred to as pre- and post-flight maintenance, this type of inspection may be carried out by either the maintenance crew or pilot/flight crew (as is generally the case with smaller aircraft, like a Cessna). This inspection includes visually examining the fuselage, hull, wings and propellers for any discernable cracks, dents or other damage, testing the lights and radio equipment, and giving the flight and engine controls a once-over (Federal Aviation Administration). Depending on the aircraft manufacturer and model, this type of check takes place at least every 2-3 days (American Airlines). All information is recorded in an aircraft log, which details the history of all inspections and any maintenance performed by a technician as a result. Ultimately, these logs provide evidence to support the airworthiness of the craft, which means the plane is "in a fit and safe state for flight and in conformity with its type design," (Canadian Aviation Regulations).

"A" and "B" Checks – Each check is more exhaustive than the last, with checks A-D being based on the number of flight hours or flight cycles, instead of days. The "A" and "B" checks take place on average every one to three months (again, depending on how many hours the craft has flown and the manufacturer's suggested timeframes), and can take up to 260 hours to complete. This means a plane will be out of commission for a least a couple of days. Parked in the hanger, these inspections involve everything a daily check would encompass, in addition to a more thorough review of internal controls, hydraulic systems, fluid levels, landing gear, and the cockpit and cabin emergency equipment. It also requires service technicians to open specific maintenance panels in order to access internal components (Aviation Pros).

"C" Checks – The "C"-check is a much more intense level of maintenance before a complete overhaul is done. Taking as long as 2,000 hours, it might be five days before an aircraft finally returns to the runway. It's during this inspection that a very finite level of detail is given to examine the structural and load-bearing components of the fuselage and wings. It's in this check technicians will perform deeper penetrating inspections, such as ultrasonic imaging. This type of technique gives maintenance crews the ability to see cracks and other damage that's not visible by the human eye (Lufthansa Technik AG). Internal parts and mechanisms will also be removed, repaired, reinstalled or completely replaced during this phase, including the flight and engine controls, wiring and conduits, seats and safety belts – even the washroom gets upgraded!

"D" Checks – This check is the most extensive and costly maintenance procedure an aircraft will go through. It involves a complete overhaul in which the entire plane is taken apart. The cabin is removed, engines dismantled, and all equipment is disassembled, cleaned, examined and restored, before being reassembled again. Think of it like the world's biggest jig-saw puzzle. Everything must be brought up-to-date with the manufacturer's current technical data as well as all federal safety standards and regulations, right down to tiniest piece of the plane. It's a particularly demanding process that can take anywhere from one to three months. Frank Rott, chief executive officer of HAITEC Aircraft Maintenance in Europe says "performing such a complex check in minimum time requires the highest technical skills and precise planning." And because of its exhaustive nature, and the fact a "D" check requires the work to be done in a specialized facility, it can cost more than $2 million – a major reason aircraft will undergo no more than three of these heavy maintenance visits before being retired (Modern Airliners).

With every check and every bit of maintenance performed, passenger safety is always a top priority in the airline industry. Canada in particular is recognized as having one of the safest civil aviation programs in the world (Transport Canada). Aviation technicians are under significant pressure to meet and exceed all safety standards, while upholding their personal and professional integrity. During a seminar in 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration's late Bill O'Brien gave students some of the most important advice, telling them: "Think about this. When you make a maintenance entry … you sign your name and certificate number. By these actions, you not only satisfy a [requirement], you give the rest of us in this industry your word of honor. You certify that your work has been done right. Not 50 percent right, not 90 percent right, but 100 percent right." And this is one industry that accepts nothing less.

By Ashley Breedon

Tags: Centennial college programs,Centennial college education,Centennial college in Toronto,Centennial community college,Community college in Toronto,School of Transportation