Large aircraft, hangar designMaintaining aircraft is no simple feat, but a range of improved technology — affecting everything from insulation and fire protection to doors and equipment — means airport operators can cut costs and be more efficient, moving more planes through limited hangar space.

Good Insulation Improves Energy Efficiency on a Big Scale

The next generation of larger aircraft, like the Airbus A380 or the Boeing B747-8, carry more than 400 passengers on average. The owners need larger hangars — with higher and wider door clearance — to protect them from the elements. Bigger planes also require bigger parts, which need more space for storage of spares and for maintenance crew operations. Even larger planes are on the horizon. This space demand requires an investment in capacity that can, fortunately, be offset by advancements in construction technologies — like better insulation. Choosing the right building shell materials can result in significant energy savings for the life of a building:

  •  In cold climates, good insulation prevents heat from escaping, which reduces heating costs.
  •  In hot climates, that same insulation helps keep the cooler air in, reducing the need for air conditioning.
  •  Regulating temperature year-round takes even less energy, despite these cavernous spaces, because only the areas where people are working on the ground need to be kept comfortable.

Each of these innovations helps decrease demand on heating and cooling systems, which means that hangars can run with smaller and more efficient equipment — with lower operating costs — than in the past.

Harnessing Nature to Keep It In or Out

Natural sunlight is a valuable resource that, if regulated, can cut both heating and lighting costs. What’s more, it’s free. Insulation plays an important role here, too: High-tech filter coatings, insulated skylights and translucent insulated plastic panels that can be used as window substitutes all help increase natural light and capture the sun’s warmth while preventing the loss of cool air during warmer months.

Fire protection is essential in a hangar, and traditional fire protection systems are expensive, with highly specialized detection equipment like sprinklers, high-speed pumps, specialty foam and a large supply of water. However, the newest foam-generating equipment takes less water to cover more space; this means less water storage and no effluent retention.

Doors are an easy way to lose energy. They’re massive, often taking up an entire wall, and it’s inevitable that a lot of energy will be lost every time the door is opened. Even when closed, the conventional overlapping door panels used in hangars let out a lot of heat.

However, new technology can minimize energy loss here, too.

Conventional rolling panel hangar door systems can be adjusted so they open only portions of the hangar when aircraft enter or exit. Vertical rise fabric doors can also further shrink the opening; they can be lowered to limit the opening height to just over the wings of an aircraft. These fabric doors may seem lightweight, but they can work well in extreme climates because of their tight edge seal.

Re-Envisioning the Standard Tool Set

There is no standard set of equipment in airport hangars because equipment needs vary according to the type of maintenance work that’s done in each facility. Regardless, speed is critical. Planes may come in for unscheduled maintenance and need a specific problem addressed as quickly as possible. They often have, at most, an overnight delay before they need to be on the move again.

However, hangars also need to be capable of holding a plane for in-depth maintenance, which can last weeks and require access to every part of the plane.

A traditional fixed equipment layout has its limitations. Access to tools, compressed air, water and communications lines, as well as general power and 400 hertz aircraft power can mean trailing cables and hoses across the floor, which causes a safety hazard.

Common wheeled work stands aren't very maneuverable and may not be tall enough to reach the right section without also moving the plane. That might be manageable with one plane, but park two or three planes in the same space and that flexibility disappears.

Newer designs feature “utility pits” instead — strategically placed equipment that “pops up” from the ground, cutting clutter and improving safety. The proper layout also gives easier access to aircraft service points.

Along with the wheeled work stands, other pieces of equipment needed for line maintenance include bucket trucks and power lift platforms. As tricky to maneuver as work stands but essential for reaching parts of the aircraft, these machines take up a lot of space.

With teleplatforms, floor space is no longer an issue. Mounted on an overhead bridge crane system, these platforms can be quickly moved to any point around an aircraft, providing safe access for maintenance staff. The newest generation of power lift platforms can turn 360 degrees within their own footprint, and they are small enough to lift just one mechanic (with tools) into a tight space.

Brushing Up on Paint Hangar Efficiency

Maintaining a paint hangar is a complex operation. Painting a plane requires consistent airflow across the aircraft body, at 75 to 100 feet per minute. The air that moves through the hangar must also be treated and filtered. In many locations, air humidity also needs be adjusted.

The equipment that helps meet all these requirements is costly, but technology has created cost savings here, too. New filter systems use dry media to remove paint particles from the airstream, which allows as much as 60 percent to 75 percent of the air to be recirculated. Reduced air volume means less new air to treat, which allows for smaller equipment sizes. With the resulting lower operating costs, these new filter systems help reduce the costs of this expensive operation.

From the Outside In

Not only is new technology improving workplace efficiency inside airport hangars, it’s also making a difference to operations outside, too.

Engine run-ups — used to test engines or diagnose problems — are a great example. This is a standard requirement in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft that traditionally required towing a plane to a designated run-up area.

With the development of jet blast deflector walls, planes no longer need to be moved; the deflector walls are installed near maintenance hangars, protecting buildings from potentially damaging air blasts as well as buffering the noise. When combined with an acoustically treated run-up facility known as a ground run-up enclosure (GRE), the noise from a jet blast is reduced, which enables operators to do run-ups at night when high-power operations are typically restricted.

What role do you see for technology in improving aircraft hangars? What are the biggest advantages it brings? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this fascinating area.

Pat Brown, RA, LEED AP, is an architect who has spent 35 years designing and building aviation support facilities. He works with airports, airlines and other airport tenants designing aircraft line and heavy maintenance hangars and shops, paint hangars, ground support vehicle maintenance facilities, air cargo centers, flight catering facilities, and all the other buildings the passenger never sees.

A previous version of this article appeared in our 2013 Aviation Special Report – How Smart Is Your Hangar?

Pat Brown is a business development manager at Burns & McDonnell. He has dedicated his career to helping clients with their airport support facilities including those for heavy maintenance, corporate flights and FBO services.