Celebrating its 65th anniversary, Aerostar is looking forward to expanding its commercial aircraft MRO operations. Ian Harbison reports from Bacău.
A lot has changed in the six years since we paid a visit to the Romanian MRO. At that time, the focus of commercial MRO activities was on the BAe Systems 146/RJ (maintenance and storage) and Boeing 737 and a new four-bay hangar was just being commissioned (normally used as a three-bay facility but with enough space to fit a fourth aircraft for lighter maintenance).
Later that year, Aerostar gained Airbus A320 Family approval, and, in 2015, the last 146/RJ departed. Last year, FAA approval was gained, opening up the possibility of lease transition work on US registered aircraft.
With a renewed focus on just the two most popular narrowbody jets, it has developed a loyal customer base, most with nose-to-tail contracts during the winter season. In fact, the 2018 season is already fully booked. Regular visitors include Pegasus Airlines, Royal Air Maroc and TUI.
While lower labour rates still offer an advantage, as much of the work is labour intensive, quality and on-time delivery rates are also very important, says Doina Matanie, head of marketing. Typically, around 80 heavy checks are carried out annually.
In April this year, it carried out possibly the first C check in Europe on an A320neo of Pegasus and a further three have since followed, all LEAP-1A powered variants. Obviously, this required an investment in tooling and training, which is being repeated in preparation for the 737 MAX.
In addition to heavy checks, Aerostar has carried out 16 installations of 737 Scimitar winglets from Aviation Partners Boeing since 2014.
Commercial MRO represented about 25 per cent of total turnover in 2017, but this could grow in the future, as there are plans for another three/four-bay hangar that is scheduled to start operations in time for the winter 2019 maintenance season, increasing capacity by 40 per cent.
This will be located at Iași International Airport, located 130km north of Bacău and, in September 2017, the company signed a 49-year lease agreement with the airport for a 16,000m² plot on the perimeter.
The new facility is based on the second hangar at Bacău and is the work of the same designer. However, lessons have been learnt and a number of changes and improvements have been made.
The building will be slightly wider but narrower. This will allow for three full width doors, making it easier to move aircraft in and out – the Bacău hangar requires two doors to be moved – and making heat retention easier in winter. The change in dimensions has also reduced the volume slightly, so less heating will be required overall.
Backshops will be incorporated into the rear of the building, rather than detached as in Bacău, and there will be small machine shop as well. Access points in the hangar floor for ground services will also be relocated closer to the aircraft bays for maximum efficiency.
Just over 51 per cent of turnover comes from production work supporting a number of major international OEMs and divided between aerostructures and landing gear/hydraulic systems. Some six million parts are produced every year, across 6,000 part numbers, with 50 per cent for Airbus programmes.
There is direct work with the OEM and support work for Tier 1 suppliers such as GKN Aerospace, Premium AEROTEC and Safran Landing Systems. One of the GKN contracts has been production of the wing shroud box for the A320 Family and so the workload has ramped up to meet the increases that have been made in the aircraft production rate.
Working to automotive style ‘just in time’ delivery schedules, a truck leaves Bacău at Monday noon every two weeks on its way the GKN wing plant at Filton, UK with the next batch of components.
This is a complete manufacturing process, from procurement of the raw materials through machining to heat and surface treatment, inspection and NDT testing to final assembly.
Other programmes include the Dassault Falcon 7X and 8X (vanes, airbrakes, spoilers) and Gulfstream 450 (landing gear doors). Kits of machined parts and detail parts are supplied for A320 Family, A330, A340, A350, A380, A400M, Falcon 7X and Super Puma helicopter, while sheet metal parts and small subassemblies are supplied to Boeing and Bombardier.
On the landing gear side, there is the manufacture of retraction and unlocking actuators for the A320 Family nose gear, steering actuators for the A330 nose gear and the door retract and unlock actuators for the Falcon 7X. Again, kits of machined parts are supplied for the A320 Family, Falcon 7X and Super Puma, as well as kits for shock absorbers on the A330, A340, A350 and Boeing 787.
Several of the projects involve a complete manufacturing process, from procurement of the raw materials through machining, inspection and NDT testing to final assembly. These include shroud boxes, A320 and A330 actuators and landing gear for the Daher TBM 850/900.
Kits of parts is a slightly misleading description, suggesting small components, as they sometimes contain large machined forgings with complex shapes. This explains the huge investment that is being made in high speed CNC machines, test equipment and automated processes.
Some investments, such as a Hwacheon Asia Pacific high speed machining centre capable of handling pieces up to 4m x 2m x 1.2m, have been made in anticipation of future contracts – having the equipment already in use improves the chance of a successful bid. Elsewhere, hydroforming is replacing rubber presses.
Two optical coordinate measuring machines have been added to a laser scanning system in the metrology department, which is approved by the Romanian Civil Aeronautical Authority as a Testing Laboratory.
A new automatic paint system has been installed that can handle batches of small components requiring the same finish. These pass through the machine in a six-hour cycle. The environment also has a prominent role, with a move away from chrome plating to zinc and the introduction of more efficient chemical milling.
Aerostar is a major part of the Romanian defense industry. For the Air Force, it overhauls the Mikoyan MiG-21 fighter and its Tumansky R-13 engine and the Aero L-39 trainer for a number of overseas customers.
The Air Force is taking delivery of a number of General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons from Portugal as MiG-21 replacements but these are being supported for the moment under a separate contract with a different company.
Other activities range from 122mm rocket launchers to electronics and radars.
Finding people with the right skills is a continuous challenge for Aerostar – the company has recruited over 1,000 trainees in eight years, and it has developed outreach programmes with various schools, colleges and universities. Mechanics can be recruited locally but engineering graduates are attracted from other parts of the country.
There is a lecture theatre on site and an NDT training centre but the company has a unique approach to on the job training. Small training sections are scattered through the facility and trainees are identified by yellow shirts – they move on to orange shirts when they are proficient enough.
This means they learn in a production environment but have immediate access to more experienced colleagues if assistance is needed.
In 2017, 245 young employees found a job in Aerostar and the average age in the company is 45 years, lower than many European MROs. Younger workers are often better adapted to automation and so those older workers who remain have been shifted to where their experience really counts, such as MRO.
In the case of the MiG-21 overhauls, this work will end in a few years so this is a step towards retirement for them. For the new MRO facility at Iași, trainers will come from Bacău but the staff will be recruited locally.
Visit aerostaraircraft.com for more information.