The last A 380 from Lufthansa: 300 tons on three tennis balls

AOn June 11, 2010, D-AIMA took off on the first scheduled flight of an Airbus A 380 in service with Lufthansa to Tokyo. At 2:32 p.m. the plane took off in Frankfurt with 520 passengers on board. On September 14, 2021, D-AIMH will take off for the last flight of an A380 in service with Lufthansa. Four people are on board, they bring the Airbus to a Spanish airfield, to a deep sleep in Teruel. Unless another miracle happens that the operation of the large aircraft makes it profitable again, that was the era of the A380. The youngest of the fleet was only six years old, had only 25,000 flight hours, “just run in well”, as the technicians at Lufthansa say in a mixture of pragmatism and melancholy.

Holger Apple

Editor in business, responsible for “Technology and Engine”.

Returned to Airbus, parked in Teruel, scrapped, that is the fate of the once proud A-380 fleet of 14 aircraft. D-AIMH, which the passengers know by their baptismal name New York, has been standing motionless in Frankfurt since March 2020. Masked, sealed, unfit to fly. Now that the hope of a restart in the foreseeable future has been shattered, the parking fees at Frankfurt Airport are eating up all cost buffers. In order for the A 380 to be flown to its final resting place, it has to be able to do just that again: to fly.

The employees at Lufthansa Technik need three weeks for this. Oil has to be changed, covers removed, electronics and hydraulics checked, hundreds of components have to be checked. They fill 60 tons of kerosene into the tanks that are never completely emptied. If the machines were parked empty, the seals of the tanks in the wings would become porous. A crucial point in the resuscitation is the functionality of the engines. They are started in front of the hall, there is thrust, but never as much as needed during the start phase. This is impossible while standing. The engine, which throws 1000 cubic meters of air in the start-up phase, needs this amount of airflow. The air flow was interrupted while the vehicle was standing. At least 13 tons of kerosene are burned in the test runs called run-ups, then the maximum weight allowed for the next tricky test is reached.

With a maximum of 47 tons of fuel on board, the A 380 can reach aircraft jacks. You lift it gently so that the chassis with its 20 wheels is around 30 centimeters in the air. The exactly horizontal position is aligned with a laser spirit level. It is important to check whether the undercarriage retracts and extends properly. Ten times in a row, that’s the rule.

Three aircraft jacks are attached to the front, one on the fuselage and two on the wings. The front one now carries 33 tonnes, the two rear ones 150 tonnes each. Makes 333 tons distributed over three hinge points, each the size of a tennis ball. There is no aircraft jack at the stern, nor is there any safety device. Pumping fuel back and forth is therefore prohibited. Walking in a plane would, however, be possible without risking the balancing act. Alone, the doors are closed, only two technicians sit in the cockpit and operate the levers.

One and a half hour procedure

Because the on-board hydraulics are not available without the engines running, the pressure is generated externally. As a result, the chassis does not retract quite evenly and takes longer than in normal operation, the external energy unit simply does not have enough power. But always enough to check the function. The covers of the housings, in which the landing gear, which weighs several tons, rest during the flight, open and close with some noise. The hydraulics are controlled by volume chambers, i.e. chambers that fill up bit by bit. When one is full, the next one fills up and starts the next movement. The relatively light nose landing gear is always first inside or outside. The four rear undercarriages are more difficult, but work as intended. Finally, it is tested whether the chassis folds out even if the hydraulic system fails. To do this, it is simply unlocked; gravity alone swivels it into position.

Two technicians sit in the cockpit for the entire procedure, which takes around one and a half hours. Buckled up, you never know. One of the technicians says that an airplane has never fallen off their trestles. Of course, it looks a bit daring when the big plane without landing gear lies on the three thin stilts, as if it were flying ten thousand meters above sea level. For the technicians, it’s everyday life, they run the ten test cycles with routine, everything is documented meticulously.

“I’m sure you’re sad, how often have you flown the A380?” We want to know from one of the technicians who has been looking after the aircraft’s reliability for years. “It is like it is. We’re not giving up hope that the planes will come back again. But no, I’ve never flown in the A 380. It never happened and now it’s too late, ”he says. The last flight on Tuesday, September 14, 2021, will be made by only four people on board. They take him to Teruel in Spain, where he is put into a deep sleep. Technicians on site will need two weeks, then D-AIMH will also rest gently in the southern climate, which should be friendly to the technology that has been shut down. And especially when parking is cheaper. On this day, the A380 is history in the Lufthansa logbook.

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