When you think of an aircraft reaching the end of its useful life, do you picture vast fleets baking forlornly in the desert sun or do you wonder if the pop can in your hand was made from one? There is a third option. Since 2000 FedEx has donated 79 cargo Boeing 727s for training and educational purposes to aerospace schools, museums and airport fire departments. Let me tell you the story of six retired aircraft that Canada’s Airline of the North, First Air, has diverted from being scrapped to live on for research, security, and fire-fighting purposes.
In the early 1990s the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) aerospace team in Ottawa was involved in the worldwide effort to better understand corrosion and fatigue damage in aging aircraft that was heightened by the fuselage rupture on an Aloha Airlines B737 in 1988. Amongst other related corrosion research, NRC was working with Diffracto Limited of Windsor, Ontario, to develop a Canadian-invented, optical, non-destructive inspection (NDI) tool, named D Sight™, which was very sensitive to the early signs of corrosion activity. Finding the damage early results in simpler and cheaper repairs. The number of persons involved in NDI at airlines and in government labs in Canada is very small and they all know each other. Thus began a relationship between NRC and First Air’s non-destructive inspection group at Carp airport. Some of the first on-aircra work with D Sight was carried out on First Air B727s at the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport.
To support this corrosion and fatigue damage research, NRC was collecting a library of fuselage and wing pieces cut out of retired and accident aircraft. Ultimately the Aircraft Specimen Library contained over 1,000 pieces from 89 aircraft, both civil and military. This real structure, containing various levels of natural corrosion and fatigue damage, was very important for non-destructive inspection equipment and technique development. Making representative duplicates from new materials would have been exorbitantly expensive and introducing corrosion and fatigue damage would have been very difficult and time-consuming. Specimens collected into the Aircraft Specimen Library were inspected with both traditional and experimental non-destructive inspection techniques. Some were loaned to researchers in Europe and the U.S. to aid their related research.
Towards this end, 17 fuselage sections of B727 C-GOFA were acquired into the library when all but the a main-deck cabin section was scrapped at the Carp airport in 1996. First Air saved the a section, put it on wheels and used it themselves for many years as a training aid at Ottawa airport.
The National Research Council received a complete B727, C-FRST, from First Air in 2001. This was a direct result of the collaboration on corrosion research. This plane could not be left on the airfield and there were no gates wide enough to roll the aircraft through even though the outer wings were cut off. The perimeter fence had to be temporarily dismantled.
Many university co-op students spent their summers surveying the entire fuselage of C-FRST for corrosion using D Sight and then examined every inch of wiring for age degradation of the insulation. Discovery channel’s Daily Planet spent two days filming the Aircraft Specimen Library and the plane in 2004 to create an episode about this work.
By 2005 there wasn’t much left to learn from C-FRST – or so it was thought. In 2006, as part of a controlled test, a bomb was set off inside the aircraft. It was the first such training exercise in Canada and involved a multitude of agencies and industry participation. Nothing goes exactly as planned and the “Kaboom” was a “pff” but it resulted in a luggage fire in the cargo hold that allowed aircraft firefighters to rehearse their firefighting skills.
Prior to scrapping, both the City of Ottawa and airport firefighters, along with Canadian Forces personnel, were invited to practice cutting up C-FRST with all of their shiny tools. They probably thought that since these tools worked on buildings and cars they would work on an aircrew. They were wrong. For example: they learned that the hydraulic jaws used on crumpled cars are totally useless on an aircraft. The materials and shape of the fuselage create problems and although most of the tools they brought worked, they were too slow. It is crucial to work fast when you are forcing entry in an emergency. Results demonstrated that a gas cut-off saw with a 14-inch diamond-coated blade was the fastest.
C-FRST was scrapped in 2007 but pieces of it remain in the Aircraft Specimen Library and continue to be used for corrosion research. The cockpit became a home flightsimulator — moving it is a whole other story. Large fuselage sections were extracted and remain today as firefighting training aids at the Ottawa airport.
B727 C-GFRB was unique in that it was in passenger not cargo configuration when it was retired. It was offered to NRC but instead was diverted to aviation security training. There are only a dozen passenger B727s still operating today. This plane may outlast them all as a working airframe. When First Air’s Hawker Siddley 748 operations ended, one airframe became available. HS-748 C-GYMX had its wings removed and, like C-GOFA, the fuselage was put on wheels. C-GYMX joined the work of C-GFRB but with a modern passenger interior layout.
B727 C-GYFA is the Ottawa airport’s emergency response trainer and has been fitted with a smoke generator inside to create realistic conditions for passenger rescue training. It is also used in combined disaster training exercises with other emergency response agencies. Each fall it is towed over to the de-icing pad to train the spray rig operators.
B727 C-FIFA was offered to the National Research Council in 2005. Instead it went to the Ottawa airport firefighters. It came back in a swap for C-GYFA in 2007. The wings and tail of C-FIFA were removed and once again the perimeter fence was breached to tow the airframe onto NRC property. In 2009, a second workshop on explosives was conducted with over 200 people attending. The test bombing was successful and the aircraft critically damaged. This should have been the end for C-FIFA but in 2012, the destructive consequences of a lithium battery fire were demonstrated. This was seven months before similar battery fires grounded the B787 fleet.
In 2013 C-FIFA was pulled back through the fence and rejoined C-GYFA at the Ottawa airport fire hall for fire training. In 2014 C-FIFA was the platform for two on-board fires. The first demonstrated the normal fire damage in an aluminium fuselage. The second demonstrated how differently composite materials in fuselages of some new aircraft will react. After a final major fire for C-FIFA this year, after 45 years of service, the scrappers will arrive.
Scrapping an aircraft is a complex process, especially recovering as much useable metal as possible. Airplanes look big but they are mostly just air, the aluminium is contaminated with coatings and sealants, full of steel fasteners and lined with plastic panels and batts of insulation, not to mention miles of coated wiring. An entire Boeing 727 can be stuffed into one 53-foot semi-trailer — once you’ve taken all the air out.
It may seem strange that years pass between events. Understand that it takes lots of planning, preparation and permissions before the button can be pushed to set off an explosion or start a fire. Once the excitement is over, everything has to be analyzed and reported. ere are few specialized aircraft bomb investigators or aircraft firefighters in Canada and they have no dedicated research organization they can go to in order to get answers to their issues. e collaborations between the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority’s Emergency Rescue Services and the National Research Council have used the aircrew gifted by First Air to answer some key questions.
Ultimately, few retired aircraft will avoid scrapping. The First Air aircrew that have been retired into educational purposes are invaluable — no amount of computer simulation can match training or experimenting on the real thing. We have tried to make the best use of them while we have them. Recently First Air has informed the Ottawa Airport Emergency Rescue Services that a B737, C-GNDC, will be gied to them. Configured as a combination cargo and passenger aircraft, the 737 offers a host of new training opportunities. Thus, C-GYFA, the last 727, can become the next research test bed.