We all know how a carwash works. You drive your car onto a set of rails and the brushes do the rest. The most you have to do, perhaps, is wipe away a few drops at the end (which I never do, it has to be said) and you’re left with a shiny-as-new set of wheels. It’s rather different for aircraft. KLM doesn’t have a carwash equivalent for planes. Besides, aircraft come in so many different types and sizes, it would be impossible to have one to fit them all. A Boeing 747 would need a completely different set up to a Boeing 737. So how is it done? And why do they have to be washed at all?
Little washes, big washes
All aircraft are given a thorough overhaul roughly every thousand flying hours, depending on the type. This service also involves a major clean of the cockpit and exterior. The entire operation takes place in Hangar 11 at Schiphol Oost, where a special Exterior Cleaning team is responsible for the “aircraft-wash”. Around 28 people work eight-hour shifts to clean KLM’s aircraft. And yes, it’s all done by hand. Lots of elbow grease, but not much water.
It used to be different. In the past, the fuselage, aerofoils, tailplane and wings were lathered with lots of detergent gel and water, then rinsed. The aircraft that emerged at the end was a sparkling delight to behold. Important, because customers like to see a clean and shiny plane.
But this is not the only reason why aircraft need to be washed. The cleaner the aircraft, the less air resistance there is and the more smoothly it glides through the air. And the lower the air resistance, the lower the fuel consumption. That’s why washing is so important! I don’t know if the same applies to cars… I should perhaps wash mine more often?
Gel isn’t used any more. The teams in Hangar 11 now use a semi-dry detergent. In the video, the Sönmez family (father and two sons) show us how it’s done. These three men work every day to ensure KLM’s fleet is spotless. Father Semsettin has been doing this for 33 years with such enthusiasm that his sons, Yavuz and Semih, have joined him.
The semi-dry wash is a way to clean the outside of the aircraft with as little environmental impact as possible. This method saves around 9 million litres of water a year. A small amount of the detergent remains on the aircraft, forming a protective coating which limits the amount of dirt that can accumulate. Another advantage is that, because very little water is used, the aircraft can remain connected to the electricity supply throughout and technical maintenance can continue uninterrupted. Win-Win!
The frequency with which an aircraft is washed also depends on the type. Most of the dirt on an aircraft is picked up on landing. A B737 takes off and lands a lot more often than a larger aircraft and therefore gets dirtier quicker. A B737 is also closer to the ground, which increases the build-up of dirt. Larger aircraft – such as the B747, B777, B787 and Airbuses – have higher undercarriages, fly longer distances and therefore land less often.
The Hangar 11 team not only cleans the outside of the aircraft, it also gives the cockpit a thorough going over. At a carwash you can buy cloths for a few euros (which admittedly are still floating around in my bag) to wipe down your car’s interior. But a cockpit is cleaned differently. The spaces between all the knobs and all the screens have to be skilfully polished. The cockpit is also cleaned more frequently than the exterior. This job falls under technical maintenance, which is carried out every 100 flying hours.
Although semi-dry washing is better for the environment, it’s considerably harder work for the cleaners. This is why people are always on the lookout for ways to lighten the load. One solution is the exoskeleton. This is a kind of portable, electronically powered harness which provides support for arms, legs and neck. Another solution is a special cleaning machine, which will hopefully be used in future to mechanically clean the B737 – a kind of “aircraft-wash” after all, perhaps. But then a mobile version.
But for the time being, the cleaning crews will carry on as they are. The video shows how tasks are allocated. Lead Ocäl Tura also still enjoys his job after 32 years. “Making sure an aircraft is clean when it leaves the hangar, that’s what it’s all about.”
Curious about how the cabin is cleaned between flights? Read more.