Scrapping Planes: Behind The Scenes At An Aircraft Dismantler

Nestled in the Vale of Glamorgan on the outskirts of the small town of St Athan, Europe’s largest aircraft dismantler is hard at work. Simple Flying enjoyed a tour of the expansive facilities and got the lowdown on what makes eCube Solutions different from its competitors.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
St Athan is home to Europe’s largest aircraft dismantler. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

A plane lover’s paradise

As soon as you pull up to the door of eCube’s head office, you know you’re entering an avgeek playground. Tantalizing views of aircraft tails in various states of dismantling peek over the top of shipping containers, while a chopped down SkyTeam fuselage serves as a very apt entranceway to the front office.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
There’s no doubting you’re in the right place. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

In the office, more evidence of aviation love appears. The waiting room seating is fashioned from old aircraft cabin seats, and the side table, on closer inspection, is actually a part of an engine. The clock on the wall is a window cut, and even the flowers on the desk are housed in a former cabin crew coffee pot.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
Waiting room seating courtesy of British Airways. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying
Behind the scenes at Europe’s largest aircraft dismantler
The office clock is suitably avgeeky. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

All this is a nod to the Plane Reclaimers side of the business, a relatively new arm for the company. For the past couple of years, this eCube spin-off has been helping avgeeks get their hands on their most treasured plane parts, boosted to fame thanks to a Quest TV show of the same name.

But that’s just a small part of the business, and certainly not its core raison d’etre. Through a door at the back of the office is where the real work goes on.

Into the hangar

Stepping out of the office brings you to an immense hangar, capable of housing up to three aircraft at once. Here, planes will be stripped of all their most important parts, from seats and engines to landing gear, ailerons, and avionics. Parts are meticulously cataloged at the point of removal, with strict quality control procedures in place to double and triple-check that everything has been recorded and labeled correctly.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
The office backs on to a huge hangar, capable of holding three aircraft. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

There were no aircraft inside when we visited, but that just served to highlight the immense size of the vast space that this company occupies. And this is just the first of three hangars it has at its disposal. Around the outside of the hangar, we could spot engine cowlings, nose cones, wing parts and more, all carefully organized ready for packing.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
The hangar was a treasure trove of aircraft parts. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying
eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

Dangling from the roof, a collection of flags commemorates some of the countries from which aircraft have arrived to face their final fate.

Aircraft everywhere

Stepping outside, we are treated to a wonderful sight of aircraft as far as the eye can see. Widebodies and narrowbodies crowd the site, some parked with engines covered, others in various states of disassembly. When we visited, at least 10 aircraft were queued up for attention, but this number goes up and down almost daily.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
Aircraft arrive at eCube all the time. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

You might think that, given everything that happened in 2020, a company like eCube would be bursting at the seams. However, the effects of COVID have actually been rather different than might be expected. While eCube certainly saw new types of aircraft arriving, including many of British Airways’ 747s, the overall outcome was fewer arrivals than it might have expected that year. Chief Commercial Officer and co-founder Mike Corme told us,

“If you look at the service industry databases like Cirium, that will also verify that few aircraft were retired globally in 2020. My view is that the industry has been in suspended animation since COVID started, and it still hasn’t quite emerged.”

Scrapping Planes: Behind The Scenes At An Aircraft Dismantler (edited)
Despite the busy apron outside the hangars, eCube says 2020 has been quieter than expected. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

The downturn in aircraft arriving from lessors in 2020 was somewhat offset by the arrival of 20 British Airways’ 747s. In fact, the absolute number is 21, as its retro liveried BOAC 747 is also in the hands of eCube, but thankfully will be preserved.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
Aircraft can be parted out both inside and outside the hangars. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

Nevertheless, the site is busy and full of life, with all manner of aircraft being worked on simultaneously. eCube has the facilities to part out aircraft both inside its hangars and outside on the apron, giving it plenty of flexibility and an immense capacity to handle multiple projects at once.

Carpenters and fabricators

Since its inception, eCube has been focussed on doing things better and more efficiently than its competitors. Part of this has meant bringing in house many of the jobs that would typically be outsourced. Speaking with Tim Schmidt, CEO of eCube, he explained that one of the first hires the company made was a carpenter, to fabricate bespoke crates for all their parts to be safely shipped out of the hangar. He commented,

“It might seem a bit over the top, when you look at the craftsmanship that goes into those crates. But when you look at the cost of some of those parts that you’re carrying in there for someone, why wouldn’t you do it properly?”

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
The crate building uses a team of skilled carpenters. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

The boxes are works of art in themselves. And it’s not only the crates that eCube have taken on board to do themselves. Schmidt explained,

“We do a lot of our tooling internally, to help us get parts off faster or more safely and with better quality. So, we have a couple of guys in fabrication – welding fabricators – who help us make purpose-made tools.”

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
The firm has the right tools to easily deal with a variety of aircraft types. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

The company fabricates not just hand tools and widgets for safe and efficient disassembly, but also large items such as APU stands, straps and slings, all to make things safer and easier to handle. Individual items taken off aircraft are placed in custom-made boxes and then forklifted into position, protecting both the health of the workers and the integrity of the parts.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
Worker safety and integrity of the parts are key focuses at eCube. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

Surviving COVID

Along with every other business in the world, eCube felt the impact of COVID. While some of the administrative tasks could be done from home, the majority of its workers needed to stay on-site for obvious reasons. That meant some tricky changes, but the company took this in its stride.

Steven Taylor, SVP of Sales and Marketing at eCube, commented,

“The processes were all put in place, and we haven’t shut down once. eCube has remained open the entire time, which is quite incredible. It was all about having the right measures in place like the distancing the masks.”

For workers in the large hangars, keeping a social distance, for the most part, wasn’t too tricky. There were some challenges presented for the dismantling process, for example, when a large or bulky item needed to be removed, requiring two people or more working closely together.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
COVID has been a challenge, but the firm never shut down once. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

The biggest challenge was the social side of things, such as the use of the canteen and washrooms at the company. This, it mitigated with staggered break times, one-way systems where possible and other measures. As a result, eCube continued working through every lockdown, with no significant COVID outbreaks among its staff.

As aviation begins to see the light at the end of the tunnel, eCube is readying for a fresh wave of retired aircraft. Contrary to popular opinion, fewer aircraft were sent to end-of-life facilities like this in 2020 than had been expected, but as things start to normalize again, this is likely to tick up.

eCube Solutions St Athan Aircraft Dismantlers
With three sizeable hangars, two of which are visible here, eCube is ready for an influx of aircraft in the coming years. Photo: Joanna Bailey | Simple Flying

To cope with this potentially high demand, eCube has scaled up to be able to work on seven aircraft in parallel. It’s positioning itself to be ahead of the curve, so that when the demand does ramp up it is ready to turn on this additional capacity.