A Brief Introduction to AELS and the Art of Aircraft Disassembly

Founded in 2006, Dutch company AELS (Aircraft End-of-Life Solutions) has been buying end-of-life Boeing and Airbus aircraft that the company disassembles at their own facility. AELS is the only company in Europe that handles the entire supply chain for aircraft that reach end-of-life, from disassembly and dismantling, component management to material recycling.

Following a few years offering disassembly as a contractor, AELS bought its own first plane in 2013. AELS still provides disassembly and dismantling services though, working with aircraft owners from all over the world, covering both narrow and wide body jet aircraft.

We at SUSTAINair took the opportunity to speak with our very own disassembly experts, and ask a few questions to find out how AELS does what it does…

Visit aels.nl for more information

Perhaps to begin, you could explain the concept of aircraft disassembly to us?

AELS aims to get as many aircraft parts as possible back into the aviation industry, in order to contribute to the circular industry within the sector. The parts originate from aircraft that are at the end of their financial lifetime.

Literally all parts, from the instruments in the cockpit to the toilet units and seats, can be reused for years to come, because they were always subjected to strict maintenance standards. For this, the strong condition is that the parts are disassembled, dismantled and certified in the correct manner. This is done, as it were, through reverse mounting, which is subject to very strict guidelines. The professional, experienced technicians of AELS follow these processes meticulously and in a structured manner, so that the parts can be safely offered to the market after recertification. The dismantling process takes place on the platforms at hangars 8 and 9 at Twente Airport, the home base of AELS.

What is AELSrole in SUSTAINair?

In SUSTAINair, AELS will provide expertise from the working floor and materials from aircraft for use in the tests done by the consortium. Next to that, AELS will further investigate the supply chain from aircraft scrapping up to the aluminium melters – is there a possibility to do this process more smartly? The goals of SUSTAINair are the same as those of AELS: making aviation more sustainable. Being part of this group, AELS can work with researchers to make an extra step in circular aviation.

In the broadest sense – how does aircraft disassembly work? What is special about the process and which parts are the most difficult to disassemble and reuse?

The process starts with preparing the aircraft for disassembly, extending all secondary flight controls and draining the fuel from the fuel tanks. Then the aircraft is powered down and the batteries are removed. The next step is the removal of all instruments, black boxes and line replaceable units. If the flight control surfaces are in good condition, they will be removed. Then the entire interior and the side wall and ceiling panels are removed. After that the insulation blankets and electrical wiring are removed. When this is done, the aircraft is placed on wooden beams to enable the landing gear to be removed. After that we can cut out parts of the frame for different purposes. Once all this is done, the aircraft is ready to be cut into small pieces which will be transported to a recycling company. 

Derk-Jan van Heerden, Founder, AELS

What inspired the founding of AELS?

What happens when an aircraft is no longer flying? Derk-Jan van Heerden, an aerospace engineering student, was determined to find out. In 2005, he wrote his Master thesis on this subject at the Technical University of Delft. 

In 2006, Derk-Jan started AELS, which is short for Aircraft End-of-Life Solutions. Today, Derk-Jan van Heerden is the CEO of AELS, and leads a team of over 30 specialists, creatives, experts and professional aerospace engineers.

What was done with aircraft before disassembly was done, in the modern way?

Earlier, before the current method of disassembly and dismantling was done, aircraft were left behind in deserted areas and eventually scrapped without regard to environment or reuse of parts.  

How can we improve the disassembly process in the future to ensure more parts are reusable/reused?

We store and resell as many parts as possible and the material that we cannot sell is being recycled in order to ensure that the amount of non-recycled material is as close to 0% as possible.

How big is AELS? Dismantling aircraft sounds like a huge operation!

The company currently has 25 employees divided over different departments. Management, aircraft purchasing, repair, sales, warehouse & logistics and disassembly & dismantling. At the moment the disassembly & dismantling is carried out by five professional, experienced technicians.

How long does it take to dismantle an aircraft, and where do the components from a disassembled aircraft go afterwards?

Depending on the size it takes 2,500 – 3,200 man hours to dismantle an aircraft. The dismantled parts find their way to the warehouse for storage, until we sell the parts or send these for repair to specialized repair facilities. Material that is not suitable for re-use will be sold to recycling companies. 

How long or how many times can a component be used? How do we track this currently – and how do we plan to keep track of components in the future? 

The lifetime of parts is determined by the manufacturer as is the time between overhauls and testing procedures. Records are kept of each part, either in hardcopy or digitally and most likely this method will not change in the near future.

Find out more about AELS' research with SUSTAINair

Find out more by visiting aels.nl

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