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OEM Report: Aerospace

Safe travels

By Meghan Boyer

A structural fabricator tackles new shapes to build an aircraft mockup for first-responder training

July/August 2012 - The speed in which first responders can access a crisis situation and respond often can mean the difference between life and death for the people involved. For aircraft rescue firefighting teams, responding to airport emergencies requires detailed knowledge of the layout and features of the different types of passenger aircraft. Acquiring this information necessitates special training in fabricated jet mockups.

In May, the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport unveiled an Airbus A380 mockup installed at the airport’s Fire Training Research Center. It will help train aircraft rescue firefighting teams from around the world. Training will include lighting the mockup on fire using propane. More than 15,000 firefighters from 29 states and 24 countries have trained at the DFW Center since it opened in 1995.

The mockup A380 is a shortened version of the double-deck, wide-body jetliner. It includes three interior sections, one configured for first/business class, one for economy class and one for cargo. Alpha SteelFab Inc., McKinney, Texas, fabricated the mockup fuselage.

As of May, Airbus had 253 firm orders for the A380 from 19 customers. The DFW Airport A380 mockup, however, is the first one in the United States. It’s also the first A380 mockup built domestically, says Britt Fletcher, vice president of operations at Alpha SteelFab. “This is the first one for a domestic airline, and it was built here in Melissa, Texas,” he says.

For Alpha SteelFab, the mockup’s shape—not its large size—created the most challenges. The company primarily is a structural fabricator that handles a lot of commercial work, including jobs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Used to working mostly with 90-degree angles, the workers had to develop a different fabrication plan to build the large egg-shaped vessel.

“We understand beams and columns and channels and angles. We don’t do much plate work,” says Fletcher. “I’m used to 90-degree corners. Where’s the corner in this thing? It was really a challenge, but we felt like once we came up with a plan, it really went nice and smooth.”

The company’s workers also had to adapt. “It was interesting just teaching the guys how to work with a different medium, with it being steel and round instead of beams and angles and being flat,” says Fletcher. Roughly 12 workers spent time fabricating the project from start to finish.

Alpha SteelFab spent six months working on the mockup, which measures 22 ft. wide, 26 ft. tall and 160 ft. long. The fabricator built it in 10 pieces, which shipped separately to DFW Airport. Each piece varied in length from 40 ft. to 50 ft., says Fletcher. In total, the mockup weighs 500,000 lbs., with the heaviest section weighing 60,000 lbs. alone.

Workers built the mockup at the company’s facility, shipped the pieces separately and assembled it onsite at DFW Airport.

A new challenge

The A380 mockup has everything, including seats, overhead bins and lavatories, says Fletcher. The fabricator took the project designs and created shop drawings from them, which included the necessary engineering and detailing work. “It was quite a struggle on the preplanning for how we were going to approach it,” says Fletcher.

The amount of detail in the mockup is necessary for training first responders, notes Fletcher. “If there’s a fire onboard or if there’s an emergency onboard, the firefighter has to know there are three decks on this thing,” he says. “They want to have the same obstacles that they would encounter in an airplane. They want to train for that, and that’s why they literally have to have the overhead bins with seats and the whole bit.”

Workers used grade 50 plate and A36 plate for the project. The equipment used for the project was “nothing fancy,” says Fletcher. “It’s just regular fabricating equipment,” he says, noting workers found some unique ways to use existing tools.

Workers built each of the 10 fuselage sections in semicircle shapes similar to Quonset huts, says Fletcher. The sections were comprised of sturdy ribs covered in rolled plate that workers welded together.

All of the ribs are made from 1-in. plate steel burned on a CNC-operated plasma machine. “The ribs were the main deal. That was the backbone, if you will, of the whole thing,” says Fletcher. Workers burned the ribs, which were 22 ft. wide and 13 ft. tall, in two pieces. They then set up a jig in the shop and bolted the ribs to the jig. “Each rib on the airplane went into this jig fitted up and then we welded it,” says Fletcher.

The jig enabled workers to know everything would line up when they eventually assembled the mockup. “We built this thing basically to a 1⁄16-in. tolerance,” he says. “Burning those and using the plasma and CNC equipment, we were able to ensure that each piece was the same. Then whenever we put those together in the jig and we lined up those holes, we knew that every rib on the whole fuselage was going to be identical.”

After fabricating the ribs, workers began standing them up using frames. “We then got all of those welded together and then literally came in and applied the skin,” says Fletcher. All of the welding for the project was done to AWS D1.1 welding code.

“We did some unique things on welding that I feel gave us an advantage,” he says. Workers welded the skin in place using uphill and horizontal welding because the company doesn’t have any manipulators or rolls to turn the object as welders were working. Each piece remained stationary as workers moved around it, completing the challenging welds.

Alpha SteelFab’s welders also learned a new technique to complete the welds. “We had to choose a process and a wire that would allow us to get the penetration of the skin into the ribs,” says Fletcher.

It also was important workers maintained safety as they worked on fixtures and scaffolding to reach each area of the large mockup pieces, he says.

“We did a lot of planning as far as employee safety went with using tie-offs and a lot of scaffolding,” he says. “It was something new to the guys who were working off the ground, so we were very cautious. We were very concerned with employee safety. We planned for that and we were able to build it without having any accidents, so we feel like that was a really big accomplishment as well.”

Final assembly

Pedestals built into a 200-ft.-long slab held the mockup as workers practiced assembling it at Alpha SteelFab’s facility.

“We would build the pieces, take it outside and assemble them,” says Fletcher. “When we assembled them, we had an erector come out and help us put it together. Then we had him help us take it apart. That way the erector knew all the ins and outs when they went to the job to put it together,” he says.

At the DFW Airport, it took workers two days to reassemble the A380 mockup onsite after all the pieces arrived, Fletcher says, noting it was challenging to ship such large pieces to their final destination. Workers used the jigs they had created to fabricate the parts for shipping, as well.

To assemble the mockup at DFW Airport, workers used a crane to invert some of the semicircle shapes for the bottom portions of the A380. Each of the sections was placed in a cradle and bolted together. “We had all the holes lined up where we knew they would work,” says Fletcher.

“When we built a bottom and a top, for instance, we built those pieces in the same jig and we bolted them on to the jig and did all of our welding. Then, whenever we unbolted it out of the jig, we built the very same piece back in the jig so we knew it would fit,” says Fletcher.

Working with the jig saved the team at Alpha SteelFab a lot of time. “We were able to put all those holes in and everything built to the jigs that had the holes in them so we never had to put the two pieces together and literally drill them together. We didn’t have to match drill them. We planned for all of the holes in our jigs,” he says.

The company used an Advantage PCD-1100/3B multi-spindle drill line from Peddinghaus Corp., Bradley, Ill., for the project. The drill line in tandem with a 1250-510 straight cut structural band saw eliminated the manual layout for hole drilling and helped increase accuracy and efficiency.

“Our jig beams we ran on our Peddinghaus equipment, CNC controls. We had repeatability, and it went very well,” says Fletcher.

Alpha SteelFab first purchased Peddinghaus equipment in 2001, says Nicholas Hajewski, marketing manager for Peddinghaus. In addition to the PCD-1100/3B multi-spindle drill line and 1250-510 straight cut structural band saw, Alpha SteelFab has an Ocean Clipper angle line, he says.

At Alpha SteelFab, teamwork played an integral part in the project, especially when the crew was determining an initial plan of action. “We came up with a basic design or basic strategy, and we came up with a way to work through obstacles. It was a team effort, definitely,” says Fletcher.

If additional airports need A380 mockups, Alpha SteelFab is ready to fabricate them. “Long-term, hopefully, we’ll do another one,” says Fletcher. “We’ve already got our jigs built. We’re ready to go. If I got an order today, I literally can start Monday on it.” FFJ

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