The challenges of replacing pickle forks in their affected aircraft may have been underestimated at Qantas. The airline grounded three of its Boeing 737-800s in late October 2019 after hairline cracks were found in each aircraft’s pickle fork structures following inspection. At the time, Qantas was confident all three aircraft would be back in the air by Christmas. But the complexity of the job and the man-hours involved mean two of the three aircraft will stay grounded until mid to late January 2020.
The pickle fork is a key component of an aircraft, linking the wings to the fuselage. It is not the only component linking the wings to the fuselage. However, there is the possibility excessive cracking could adversely affect the structural integrity of the aircraft and result in a loss of control, particularly during turbulence or a heavy landing. The discovery of the cracks was called “a serious but manageable issue.”
Three Qantas 737-800s are grounded
Qantas has 75 Boeing 737-800 aircraft in its fleet. They are the mainstay of the airline’s domestic and short-haul international fleet. After cracks in the pickle fork structure were found in some aging Boeing 737-800 aircraft belonging to other airlines, Qantas inspected 33 of its Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Whilst the average age of Qantas’ Boeing 737-800 fleet is 13.0 years, the average age of the aircraft inspected in 20.7 years and all had completed more than 22,600 landings.
The oldest Qantas 737-800 aircraft have performed around 27,000 landings, below the 30,000 landings threshold set by the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration for immediate inspection. This is also well below the 90,000 landings the pickle forks are meant to be good for. The three grounded Qantas aircraft had completed an average of 23,000 landings
The three Qantas aircraft grounded are VH-VXA Broome, VH-VXF Sunshine Coast, and VH-VXM Mount Hotham. VH-VXA has been with Qantas since January 2002, VH-VXF has been with Qantas since March 2002 and VH-VXM has been working for the airline since July 2002. Following the discovery of the hairline cracks, the three aircraft were ferried to the Qantas heavy engineering base in Brisbane, Queensland, where they have remained since.
Time and complexity of pickle fork replacement underestimated?
According to a report by Robyn Ironside in The Australian late last week, each pickle fork replacement is set to take 3000 work hours. Twelve Qantas engineers had to fly to the United States to learn how to make the repairs. A Qantas spokesperson told The Australian;
“Qantas Engineering is now one of the small handful of registered organizations who are able to complete these complex repairs.”
And whilst Qantas does expect to see one of the grounded aircraft back in the air by Christmas, the other two aircraft will be cooling their wheels in Brisbane.
“Due to other engineering requirements and the length of time taken to complete the works, Qantas expects the remaining two aircraft to be back in service before the end of January next year.”
With three aircraft grounded, 6% of Qantas’ Boeing 737-800 fleet is offline with fewer seats available for sale. But Qantas notes that while leisure and family travel is picking up over the holiday season, business and government travel is in “out of office” mode. Subsequently, there have been no issues with seat availability and schedules have not been adversely impacted.
This is good news for travellers. But given the costs and complexity involved in replacing the cracked pickle forks, whether Qantas is so sanguine about the pickle fork matter behind closed doors at their Sydney HQ is another matter altogether.