Aircraft maintenance operations are broadly distributed within and across nations and are performed by both military and civilian mechanics. Mechanics work at airports, maintenance bases, private fields, military installations and aboard aircraft carriers. Mechanics are employed by passenger and freight carriers, by maintenance contractors, by operators of private fields, by agricultural operations and by public and private fleet owners. Small airports may provide employment for a few mechanics, while major hub airports and maintenance bases may employ thousands. Maintenance work is divided between that which is necessary to maintain ongoing daily operations (line maintenance) and those procedures that periodically check, maintain and refurbish the aircraft (base maintenance). Line maintenance comprises en route (between landing and takeoff) and overnight maintenance. En route maintenance consists of operational checks and flight-essential repairs to address discrepancies noted during flight. These repairs are typically minor, such as replacing warning lights, tyres and avionic components, but may be as extensive as replacing an engine. Overnight maintenance is more extensive and includes making any repairs deferred during the day’s flights.
The timing, distribution and nature of aircraft maintenance is controlled by each airline company and is documented in its maintenance manual, which in most jurisdictions must be submitted for approval to the appropriate aviation authority. Maintenance is performed during regular checks, designated as A through D checks, specified by the maintenance manual. These scheduled maintenance activities ensure that the entire aircraft has been inspected, maintained and refurbished at appropriate intervals. Lower level maintenance checks may be incorporated into line maintenance work, but more extensive work is performed at a maintenance base. Aircraft damage and component failures are repaired as required.
Line Maintenance Operations and Hazards
En route maintenance is typically performed under a great time constraint at active and crowded flight lines. Mechanics are exposed to prevailing conditions of noise, weather and vehicular and aircraft traffic, each of which may amplify the hazards intrinsic to maintenance work. Climatic conditions may include extremes of cold and heat, high winds, rain, snow and ice. Lightning is a significant hazard in some areas.
Although the current generation of commercial aircraft engines are significantly quieter than previous models, they can still produce sound levels well above those set by regulatory authorities, particularly if the aircraft are required to use engine power in order to exit gate positions. Older jet and turboprop engines can produce sound level exposures in excess of 115 dBA. Aircraft auxiliary-power units (APUs), ground-based power and air-conditioning equipment, tugs, fuel trucks and cargo-handling equipment add to the background noise. Noise levels in the ramp or aircraft parking area are seldom below 80 dBA, thus necessitating the careful selection and routine use of hearing protectors. Protectors must be selected that provide excellent noise attenuation while being reasonably comfortable and permitting essential communication. Dual systems (ear plugs plus ear muffs) provide enhanced protection and allow accom-modation for higher and lower noise levels.
Mobile equipment, in addition to aircraft, may include baggage carts, personnel buses, catering vehicles, ground support equipment and jetways. To maintain departure schedules and customer satisfaction, this equipment must move quickly within often congested ramp areas, even under adverse ambient conditions. Aircraft engines pose the danger of ramp personel being ingested into jet engines or being struck by a propeller or exhaust blasts. Reduced visibility during night and inclement weather increase the risk that mechanics and other ramp personnel might be struck by mobile equipment. Reflective materials on work clothing help to improve visibility, but it is essential that all ramp personnel be well trained in ramp traffic rules, which must be rigorously enforced. Falls, the most frequent cause of serious injuries among mechanics, are discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia.
Chemical exposures in the ramp area include de-icing fluids (usually containing ethylene or propylene glycol), oils and lubricants. Kerosene is the standard commercial jet fuel (Jet A). Hydraulic fluids containing tributyl phosphate cause severe but transient eye irritation. Fuel tank entry, while relatively rare on the ramp, must be included in a comprehensive confined- space-entry programme. Exposure to resin systems used for patching composite areas such as cargo hold panelling may also occur.
Overnight maintenance is typically performed under more controlled circumstances, either in line-service hangers or on inactive flight lines. Lighting, work stands and traction are far better than on the flight line but are likely to be inferior to those found in maintenance bases. Several mechanics may be working on an aircraft simultaneously, necessitating careful planning and coordination to control personnel movement, aircraft component activation (drives, flight control surfaces and so on) and chemical usage. Good housekeeping is essential to prevent clutter from air lines, parts and tools, and to clean spills and drips. These requirements are of even greater importance during base maintenance.
Base Maintenance Operations and Hazards
Maintenance hangars are very large structures capable of accommodating numerous aircraft. The largest hangars can simultaneously accommodate several wide-body aircraft, such as the Boeing 747. Separate work areas, or bays, are assigned to each aircraft undergoing maintenance. Specialized shops for the repair and refitting of components are associated with the hangars. Shop areas typically include sheet metal, interiors, hydraulics, plastics, wheels and brakes, electrical and avionics and emergency equipment. Separate welding areas, paint shops and non-destructive testing areas may be established. Parts-cleaning operations are likely to be found throughout the facility.
Paint hangars with high ventilation rates for workplace air contaminant controls and environmental pollution protection should be available if painting or paint stripping is to be performed. Paint strippers often contain methylene chloride and corrosives, including hydrofluoric acid. Aircraft primers typically contain a chromate component for corrosion protection. Top coats may be epoxy or polyurethane based. Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is now seldom used in these paints, having been replaced with higher molecular weight isocyanates such as 4,4-diphenylmethane diisocyanate (MDI) or by prepolymers. These still present a risk of asthma if inhaled.
Engine maintenance may be performed within the maintenance base, at a specialized engine overhaul facility or by a sub-contractor. Engine overhaul requires the use of metalworking techniques including grinding, blasting, chemical cleaning, plating and plasma spray. Silica has in most cases been replaced with less hazardous materials in parts cleaners, but the base materials or coatings may create toxic dusts when blasted or ground. Numerous materials of worker health and environmental concern are used in metal cleaning and plating. These include corrosives, organic solvents and heavy metals. Cyanide is generally of the greatest immediate concern, requiring special emphasis in emergency preparedness planning. Plasma spray operations also merit particular attention. Finely divided metals are fed into a plasma stream generated using high-voltage electrical sources and plated onto parts with the concomitant generation of very high noise levels and light energies. Physical hazards include work at height, lifting and work in uncomfortable positions. Precautions include local exhaust ventilation, PPE, fall protection, training in proper lifting and use of mechanized lifting equipment when possible and ergonomic redesign. For example, repetitive motions involved in tasks such as wire tying may be reduced by use of specialized tools.
Military and Agricultural Applications
Military aircraft operations may present unique hazards. JP4, a more volatile jet fuel that Jet A, may be contaminated with n-hexane. Aviation gasoline, used in some propeller-driven aircraft, is highly flammable. Military aircraft engines, including those on transport aircraft, may use less noise abatement than those on commercial aircraft and may be augmented by afterburners. Aboard aircraft carriers the many hazards are significantly increased. Engine noise is augmented by steam catapults and afterburners, flight deck space is extremely limited, and the deck itself is in motion. Because of combat demands, asbestos insulation is present in some cockpits and around hot areas.
The need for lowered radar visibility (stealth) has resulted in the increased use of composite materials on fuselage, wings and flight control structures. These areas may be damaged in combat or from exposure to extremes of climate, requiring extensive repair. Repairs performed under field conditions may result in heavy exposures to resins and composite dusts. Beryllium is also common in military applications. Hydrazide may be present as part of auxiliary-power units, and anti-tank armament may include radioactive depleted uranium rounds. Precautions include appropriate PPE, including respiratory protection. Where possible, portable exhaust systems should be used.
Maintenance work on agricultural aircraft (crop dusters) may result in exposures to pesticides either as a single product or, more likely, as a mixture of products contaminating a single or multiple aircraft. Degradation products of some pesticides are more hazardous than the parent product. Dermal routes of exposure may be significant and may be enhanced by perspiration. Agricultural aircraft and external parts should be thoroughly cleaned before repair, and/or PPE, including skin and respiratory protection, should be used.