Meet Uldis Peļņa, Head of the Engineering Department at airBaltic
From now until the end of the year, the airBaltic Training Center is hosting an exhibit of photographs featuring airBaltic’s planes. In the photos, the airBaltic fleet is captured in midair and on the runway, glowing in the night sky and glistening in the sunlight. The author of these stunning photographs is the airline’s chief engineer, Uldis Peļņa, whose intimate knowledge of his subject matter allowed him to reveal airBaltic’s planes in their full splendor. Peļņa sat down with Wingtips to talk about his job at airBaltic, his plans to build his own aircraft, and the secret behind the timeless beauty of airplanes.
What do you do at airBaltic?
I am head of the Engineering Department, where I manage a group of thirty employees. The department is responsible for the serviceability of our airplanes. We make sure that airBaltic planes are absolutely safe the moment they are handed over to the pilots to transport passengers. That’s my main duty. My department has two sections. One is the engineering section, which consists of engineers with specialized knowledge of the airplanes, their components, and their operations. The job of the other section is to transfer into our digital database all the hand-written information entered by the pilots and technicians in the flight logs. Everything is rewritten in the right place and in the right format. Each plane’s flight hours are registered, as well as the flight hours for separate parts. This helps us calculate how many hours are left until maintenance work must be performed.
What kind of engineers work in your department?
We have lots of different positions for our engineers. We have a structural engineer, two avionic engineers, four 737 engineers, one 757 engineer, two Dash 8 Q400 engineers, two Fokker 50 engineers, two engine engineers, two reliability engineers, one technical documentation specialist, and another component engineer. Then we have the planning engineers and the documentation engineers, whose tasks I already explained.
And what is your job in all of this?
My job is to lead, observe, and organize all the resources at my disposal. I have to make the right decisions at the right time, to achieve the global tasks of the department and the company. These consists of a number of small tasks distributed between various engineering positions. Some are routine tasks, and many others are not routine tasks, such as spotting defects in the planes and giving advice to the purchasing department, to help them understand which components must be ordered for the planes and to decide whether the parts they have found on the market are suitable. If an airplane is structurally damaged, for instance if a bird flies into the plane or if an airport vehicle bumps into the side of the plane, then our team must develop repair plans to help bring the plane back into operation.
What are the routine maintenance duties that you must perform on planes?
That is determined by the aircraft maintenance programs. These programs are based on the Maintenance Planning Documents, which are developed for each model by the manufacturers. Maintenance work often depends on the region in which an airplane is operated—whether it’s a dry region with lots of sand storms, or a moist region beside a sea, like ours. Additional tasks are also included in these programs, such as seasonal work.
What are some of these pre-winter maintenance tasks?
These include maintenance work suggested by the manufacturer as well as tasks developed by the airline. On the Fokker 50s, one problem is that passengers carry a lot of snow onto the plane’s steps. When the steps are raised up into the plane, the snow melts and drips down by the door, under the floor. In the winter, this water gets on the wires in there. As a result, the doors don’t open, lights don’t work—things like that.
What are the most frequent tasks you perform?
These are the daily checks. For the Boeing, these daily checks can take up to three hours. The daily check includes a visual inspection of the plane—an internal and external check to make sure there are no visible damages, damages to the livery painting, no fluid dripping from the engines or wings, and no fuel dripping from the engine. We also check the tires, tire pressure, brakes, and the landing and navigation lights. We do the same in the cabin, where we check to see if all the lights work, and if the emergency equipment is in good condition. We also examine the airplane’s documentation, to see if it has been properly filled out.
What is the next type of check?
The service check. Here we perform maintenance work on parts that are deeper inside the plane. It’s more than just a visual check. We check the various parts, the engine, the fluid levels. We add the necessary oils, and check several different parts in the cabin. These are conducted once every three days. Then there is the C-Check, when an airplane is practically dismantled; all the chairs and floors are removed, so the entire airplane can be checked. We often remove the engine, too, as well as many piloting systems and parts of the tail. Parts are replaced, checked, and oiled. We search for damage throughout the plane, and then fix it. Our planes are constantly being thoroughly checked and controlled.
What are the parts that are most often damaged? What parts must often be fixed?
The parts that are damaged most often are the parts that passengers have access to. (Laughs.) That means, everything in the cabin. They take up the most of our unplanned time. This especially includes everything connected to the chairs. And passengers always seem to try to pry off panels and peel away at labels—there are lots of these types of damages.
So there is more damage done to the cabin than to the engines?
Yes. The worst thing that can happen to the engines is a bird can fly into them. That always ends up being very expensive and difficult to fix. The engine is like a vacuum cleaner: it sucks everything into itself. Ground handling crews at airports are responsible for cleaning up these loose items from the tarmac before an airplane arrives. And if they don’t, then a pilot has to do it when he conducts his inspection.
How often do birds get sucked into the engines?
There hasn’t been a single autumn when this hasn’t happened. It occurs about twice a year, in the spring and fall, when birds migrate. This year, the most unpleasant occurrence was when some birds flew into a Boeing’s horizontal stabilizer. Something similar happened to the Q400: a Norwegian goose was obviously a little too fond of our new aircraft. The plane was out of service for a long time—about fifteen days. The problem was that the goose had broken the tip of one of the propeller blades. The bird was then thrown back into the fuselage, where it left a big dent. We needed to saw a hole into the fuselage, cut out the damaged material, and replace it with a new piece. As for the propeller, we had to replace the entire blade; that new blade alone cost us about 60,000 euro. The total bill for the damage was closer to 150,000 euro. And that doesn’t include the indirect losses incurred by the plane’s being grounded for two weeks. That would at least triple that figure.
How did you begin working in the aviation industry?
I started working here when I was still in my first year at the university. I worked at the Civil Aviation Administration, where my job was to inspect and monitor the companies who performed the technical maintenance of airplanes. I made sure everything they did and the documents they filled out were in accordance with state requirements. After working there for three years, my chances for further growth slowed down, but since I was young I was anxious to learn more. At the time, the only normal, functional large company here was airBaltic, so it didn’t take me a long time to make my decision. I started working at airBaltic as soon as the chance arose.
Today, after all the experience you’ve had, could you build an actual airplane, if you had all the necessary parts?
Of course. That’s why I started a doctoral program this year. During the four-year program, my goal is to acquire the necessary knowledge and gain access to the knowledge possessed by instructors, books, and other technologies, so I can eventually build my own plane.
In addition to your passion for building planes, you also have a passion for photographing airplanes. Can you say a few words about this, too?
I started photographing planes when I was about fourteen or fifteen. My father was an amateur photographer, and he let me use his equipment. But I developed an interest on my own: I decided that I had to study this new object, to understand how it worked. I wanted to understand how a strip of film eventually became an actual photograph. My father showed me how to work the equipment, and I began taking pictures. Why airplanes? Because even back then I was interested in planes. We lived in Ogre, and Russian military helicopters often flew over my town. These were incredibly interesting objects, and I marveled at them—I marveled at how they could stay in the air.
What makes airplanes worth photographing? What makes them beautiful?
There’s an interesting saying: “Beautiful airplanes fly well.” That means, if an airplane flies well, it is also beautiful. And I wholeheartedly agree: airplanes are beautiful. But why are they beautiful? That’s an interesting question. It depends on how you interpret the concept of beauty. I think that airplanes are beautiful because they are like a point of reference, a benchmark, for everything that happens in aviation—the focal point of everything that we do here, everything we think about and care about. And let’s not forget that humans dreamed of flying long before airplanes appeared. This was connected with something unattainable but something they saw every day: flying birds. But for humans this was unattainable. So the advent of aviation was a new leap forward for humanity. It allowed us to believe that even those things that seem impossible can sometimes be achieved.
How do you go about photographing planes?
I photograph them in the air as well as on the ground. My photography used to be rooted in emotions: I’d see something interesting that was worth capturing. But the more you take pictures, the more you learn about photography, the more you start to think about lights and backgrounds. You look to see whether the sky looks nice, whether there are any interesting reflections in the frame. Lots of people who take pictures of airplanes try to make informative images. In a way this is interesting: you look at the picture and think, “I remember when this plane was at the Riga Airport.” But over time these pictures can get boring. There’s no dynamism in the picture, no story, nothing unusual, no connection between the object and its surroundings, no emotions. That’s why, when I take pictures of airplanes, I always try to show their beauty, the way they are integrated into the surrounding environment, how the surrounding environment plays with the aircraft. I try to show how I see them.
What are your favorite aircraft to photograph?
In the airBaltic fleet I like the Boeing 757. It’s a beautiful plane, but it’s also difficult to photograph because of its great size.
What makes it beautiful?
Hard to say, but I know that even our pilots say it’s beautiful. It’s different from other Boeing planes—its design is much different. The cockpit is very beautiful. It is fronted by large windows, which are well integrated into the overall look of the plane.
It is possible to build an ugly plane?
That would be difficult, because every plane must follow the laws of aerodynamics. If an airplane is poorly built from an aerodynamic perspective, then possibly it will be ugly. But if a plane is built well from an aerodynamic perspective, then it will always be beautiful.