We love freighters!

Cargo aircraft are very popular with Boeing mechanics

Loyalty is exceedingly important to Kevin Waters. Build a plane other than the Boeing 777? That would have been simply out of the question for the 52-year-old. Waters has been there since the first machine left Boeing’s production facility at the beginning of the nineties. There is hardly a 777 flying anywhere in the world that Waters has not helped to assemble. It takes thousands of rivets to ensure that the underside of a “Triple Seven” is precisely and cleanly connected to the fuselage. And it takes Kevin Waters.

Welcome to the largest building in the world. Welcome to Everett, near Seattle. This is where US aviation giant Boeing builds all of its wide-body planes. Four “Triple Sevens” are neatly lined up this Tuesday morning, slowly taking shape. For the moment, the airline that will take delivery of this brand new plane in a few weeks time can only be discerned from the rudder, approximately 90 cm wide at its tip. The rest of the aircraft is enclosed in a green, shimmering, protective plastic cover.

There is still some time to go before Kevin Waters will help to build the first Lufthansa Cargo freighter. Each machine spends 16 days on what is known as the “final assembly line”, with up to 1,000 employees involved at different stations. A “Triple Seven” leaves the facility every two-and-a-half days – and the next aircraft moves up to the vacated work spot. Finger-tip precision is required for this – and a snail’s pace is the order of the day: moving at just 4.5 centimetres per minute, the aircraft and assembly cranes are put into motion and steered with the utmost caution to the next workstation.

The first “Triple Seven” for Lufthansa Cargo appears in the Boeing engineers’ list under works number LN 1144. The fuselage parts will first be pieced together from huge metal “skin sections” when assembly work begins in August. They come from more than 800 suppliers all over the world, principally from Japan. Gradually, a complete aircraft will take shape in a threeshift operation in the XXLsized hall. The undercarriage will be mounted, the flight instruments installed – and finally the engines hung below the wings. The GE90 engines alone measure more than three metres in diameter, making them almost as big as the fuselage of a Boeing 737. And the loading system can’t be forgotten either. Although work on the 777 freighter is highly complex, it is less common for this to cause the Boeing engineers headaches than, for example, the many different cabin interiors in passenger aircraft, which are built on the same production line.

“That’s why the mechanics really like the freighters”, says Lufthansa employee Matthias Baschant, who is based  full-time in the Boeing production hall. As a permanent representative of Group Fleet Management, Baschant and a team of Lufthansa Technik inspectors look after every plane bearing the Lufthansa crane that is built in Everett from the first step, to painting, through to the test flight. As it is always the case in the capital-intensive aviation industry, the sums of money involved are gigantic. The list price of a single 777 freighter is 270 million dollars, equivalent to several thousand luxury vehicles. At the end, Baschant conducts the acceptance and handover for Lufthansa. As an on-site problem-solver and decision-maker, the aerospace engineer is indispensable at “Boeing City” – because time is money. And because problems must be solved as quickly as possible. Heaven forbid the tight production schedule should be thrown off course. Baschant is there to prevent that.

“We are informed immediately by mobile phone if there is a problem with a Lufthansa plane”, explains Baschant. “We’re on site within half an hour and can discuss how to tackle the situation with the Boeing engineers.” A solution might then have to be found for a fuselage part that doesn’t meet specifications, faults in the riveting or uneven paintwork. The chief engineer of the 777 program, Bob Whittington, describes Lufthansa as a “very demanding” client. Is that a compliment or criticism? Whittington sees it as a compliment, “as we always learn a great deal at Boeing from Lufthansa. At the end of the day, it’s the airline that flies the aircraft and gathers its practical experience.” Whittington is certain that Lufthansa Cargo will have a lot of good experiences with its brand new freighters. Ultimately, the 777F has the greatest technical reliability of all aircraft worldwide. However, it’s even more important for the chief engineer that the expensive investment also pays off for Lufthansa in the end. “The greatest compliment”, he says, “is when our customers earn money with the freighter.”