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March 11, 2017

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Aircraft engineer’s story in Tibet

AT 8am, when he hears a passenger plane landing at Lhasa’s Gonggar Airport, Phuten rushes from his office to the tarmac with a stack of repair lists.

Phuten, a Tibetan, is an aircraft repairman at the airport in the capital city of southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. He needs to finish the repairs and an overhaul of the plane in 20 minutes.

The landing gear, hydraulic system, aero engine and plane wings are examined first, then 15 parts outside the plane fuselage, before he enters the cockpit to check the flight system.

Phuten, 46, has been an aircraft mechanic for 27 years, ever since he graduated from a professional plane maintenance school in Beijing.

“Only one plane landed at the airport every day when I first started working here,” Phuten says. “We only had seven or eight colleagues in our mechanical team and often left for work at 9:30am.”

In 1995, Tibet’s second civil airport, Qamdo Bamda Airport, started operation, followed by another three airports in Nyingchi, Ngari and Xigazi.

Currently, Tibet has five civilian airports, 71 airlines and 41 navigation cities. In 2016, passenger throughput in the region hit 4 million for the first time.

The rapid development of the Tibet civil aviation industry has brought changes in Phuten’s work.

During busy seasons, he and his colleagues have to repair and overhaul 30 to 40 airplanes a day.

“Our team has expanded to 50 people. We often work extra hours until midnight, since the airport opened night flights,” Phuten says.

Airplane maintenance needs high physical strength, and inclement weather in Tibet with low temperatures and oxygen levels makes the work harder.

Phuten says he still remembers when he once almost “collapsed” after a week’s hard work, changing a plane engine.

“The engine weighs as much as several tons. It needs manual operation to connect the engine with the wings and to fix every bolt exactly into every pin hole,” Phuten says.

At the height of winter, outdoor temperature in Lhasa can reach 10 degrees Celsius below zero and cold wind whistles into the airport from an average elevation of 3,600 meters above sea level.

During his 27 years working as a repairman, Phuten has changed components for the retired plane Boeing 707 and also has a good understanding of the latest plane electronics system for the Airbus 319. He has obtained maintenance licenses for six different plane types and has been invited to work for larger airlines many times.

“I just cannot leave my team and Tibet,” Phuten says. “Some of my colleagues are Tibetans and some are Han Chinese. We work side by side in this extremely hard weather. We are a family.”

The Tibet civil aviation industry has had no air disasters for 52 years.

“A loose screw, oil leaks, the details all matter a lot,” Phuten says. “Safety, safety and safety. It is our promise to our passengers.”


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