From lightning to bird strikes, a flight engineer reveals how he keeps your plane safe

Scott Foxon is a Certifying Engineer with over 12 years of experience in Virgin’s maintenance team – Heathcliff O’Malley

The Virgin Atlantic hangar is hidden in a steel ring surrounding Heathrow Airport; buried behind metal fences on the east side of Britain’s largest aviation hub.

It effectively takes me a week to get in, through remote security procedures and identity checks – and then another 20 minutes while the same documents are read again at the entry gate.

You don’t have to be an aviation expert to understand the need for such care – but the reason for all the care is emphasized the moment I step inside and come face to face with a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Maid Marian has just flown home from Johannesburg and is about to undergo a routine inspection before leaving again in the evening.

Part of the medical treatment is a boroscope scan (see below). This look into the most difficult to reach parts of the aircraft is carried out by Scott Foxon, a certifying engineer who has more than twelve years of experience with Virgin’s maintenance team.

After dusting off his hands, he sits down Telegraph travel to discuss the essence of his work, from crawling into fuel tanks to cleaning up the messy aftermath of a bird strike.

Give me a snapshot of your average day. Is there such a thing as an average day?

There is. There’s a plane in the hangar most mornings; or in the evening, on the night shift. Every time we have a checklist with vacancies.

These are usually routine tasks, but tasks that must be performed in the hangar as they require time and dry conditions. That said, every day is different as I’m usually working on a different system on the plane.

Inside one of Virgin's maintenance hangars at HeathrowInside one of Virgin's maintenance hangars at Heathrow

Inside one of Virgin’s maintenance hangars at Heathrow – Heathcliff O’Malley

What kind of tasks?

Oil maintenance, hydraulic filter checks, that sort of thing. These are done every time an aircraft visits the hangar. Then you have to check everything for leaks and run the engines.

Are there tasks you see on your work sheet and your heart sinks?

Fuel tank entrance. I wouldn’t say my heart sinks, exactly. I like to get stuck; most guys here do that. But no one likes working on toilets. That, and entering the fuel tank, are the things I least like working on. It still has to be done. It’s all part of the job.

What does entering the fuel tank entail?

Differs. It could be a resealing job because there is a leak somewhere in the tank, or there could be a problem with a probe that is not measuring correctly. It could be a five-minute job, or it could be a twelve-hour job.

Everyone who works in the hangar must complete ‘Fuel Tank Awareness’ training. Basically, every time you have a fuel tank open, you have to shut down the entire hangar and turn off all power to the aircraft. You bleed the tanks and the fuel vapors.

You have the doors open. You have to make it a very safe environment; no cell phones around – that kind of thing. It’s a dangerous position to be in. If someone goes into the tank wearing a full suit and an oxygen mask, you are taking care of their life.

'It's a dangerous position to be in': filling up with fuel is one of Scott's least favorite chores'It's a dangerous position to be in': filling up with fuel is one of Scott's least favorite chores

‘It’s a dangerous position to be in’: Entering the fuel tank is one of Scott’s least favorite jobs – Heathcliff O’Malley

It sounds quite claustrophobic…

It could be. Obviously the further you go into the wing, the thinner the structure becomes. So you may find yourself crawling around at the base of the wing, where you have more room to maneuver. But as you get further away it can be very claustrophobic.

And if you have a mask on, and you’re trying to do a job with tools, and you’re trying to communicate with someone on the outside, that can be a tight spot. It can also be a lonely position. You know how you see the participants I’m a celebrity – when they go underground, or in a box, and they immediately get scared.

That’s how it can feel. It’s always useful to have someone next to you on the panel, to talk to, to have a little daylight. I enjoy my job, but it’s quite a dangerous position to be in. If something happens, someone has to come in and save you.

How often should you do it?

We have to do the fuel tank entry training every two years, and after that I think I’ve been in four times. So not that often. We rarely have routine inspections in the tank; usually we have to go inside when something goes wrong.

What about bird strikes? Do you literally go into the engine and pull out your springs?

We need to make sure the engine is clean and check for any damage. Birds sometimes make quite a mess – dents in the leading edges, that sort of thing.

We must fully inspect the engine and check that there are no cracks. And if there are, you have to fix them. Two weeks ago we had to replace one of the engines because a few birds had entered it. That’s not the most fun thing to do. It’s a bit like the fuel tank and toilet stuff, but it’s part of the job.

So a bird can cause more damage than a layman would think?

Yes. You have the engine core. Then you have the “coldstream channel” around the outside. Engines are rarely shut down due to a bird strike. Usually birds do not go through the core, but to that outer part.

But that’s where the composite stuff is, and a hit usually causes damage there. Sometimes panels cannot be replaced and we have to call in a working group to deal with that. But usually engines survive.

Tasks that need to be completed in the hangar require time and dry conditions, Scott saysTasks that need to be completed in the hangar require time and dry conditions, Scott says

Tasks to be completed in the hangar require time and dry conditions, says Scott – Heathcliff O’Malley

Is it an urban myth that a bird strike requires an immediate emergency landing?

That’s the captain’s decision. You look at Sully [Chesley Sullenberger, who ditched US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River on January 15 2009] in New York City. That was a double engine attack; the worst-case scenario.

If the cockpit suspects a bird strike and the display values ​​look bad, they immediately return. From a technical point of view, I wouldn’t even question it, especially if you’re about to fly across the Atlantic.

How often does it happen?

More common during the migration season. But it’s really not that common. Typically, aircraft fly at altitudes of 30,000 and 40,000 feet. Birds aren’t really that high.

Is a passenger plane checked every time it lands?

Yes. After each flight, when it arrives at the gate, passengers disembark and a technical team continues; one certifier for the aircraft and perhaps two or three technicians.

They will perform tasks such as topping up the oil for the engines. They will perform a walk-around inspection, checking the tires, hull and brakes. Then they go up, talk to the flight crew and ask if they had any problems during the flight, if anything was reported.

Would like an airplane Maid Marian enter the hangar every time it has made a flight the length of Johannesburg to London?

No. It comes in once a month. Airplanes are so reliable now. Most maintenance generally involves a detour, after which the engines are filled with oil and sent on their way.

This plane [Maid Marian] may have flown in from Johannesburg this morning, but leaves tonight. There are a few paint issues – and we did a borescope check.

What does a borescope do?

It is an optical device that allows you to view the engine up close. You inspect the rotors and combustion chambers and check that there is no wear and tear on the internal workings.

Flight engineerFlight engineer

Scott Foxon: ‘I’m a pretty lucky flyer’ – Heathcliff O’Malley

What is the most common repair problem you encounter?

[Without hesitation] Lightning strikes.


Yes. On the trailing edges of modern airplane wings you have little sticks called “static fuses.” They dissipate electrical charge. So after a lightning strike you should look at that first, and then at the controls, and make sure everything is fine. It happens more often than people think.

However, it is all safe. Modern composite aircraft have a copper layer woven into the carbon fiber. That’s there to drive out the strike. But lightning still leaves charred trails and you often see burnt rivet heads. If there has been a suspected lightning strike, we have to do a lot of inspections and look around the aircraft very carefully.

Then we need to sand the affected areas, apply new resin and repaint. If you look closely, you can see minor repairs and paint blemishes on many of the 787s. It’s mainly cosmetic damage, but that’s probably the most common problem we encounter.

Have you ever had a problem that you can’t solve?

I can’t think of any off the top of my head. We always try, as far as our licenses allow. And we can contact Boeing and Airbus by telephone 24/7.

Are the engineers from different airlines talking?

It’s a big industry, but a small world. When it comes to the specific work we do, we don’t share that much. But if we need tools from British Airways, we can call them up or lease something. It’s all quite friendly.

We try to take care of each other as much as possible. British Airways owns the high-performance engine pins around the corner, and we use them quite often after engine changes. We just call them. It’s not a rivalry per se.

How often do you travel by flying? Are you a confident flyer?

I’m a pretty happy flyer. I enjoy it. My wife and I went to New York last year.

Can you rest during a holiday flight or do you listen to engine noises?

[Grins] I can switch off.

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