When Michael Austermeier was 8 years old growing up in Germany he was about to have his first ride in an airplane. Looking at the Lockheed Super Constellation sitting on the tarmac in awe, wondering how this giant aircraft could fly, he told his dad, "It looks like a giant fish."
Nearly 50 years later, he knows all about the odd shape of the fuselage. In fact, he has an intimate knowledge of the aircraft, having seen every square inch of the venerable four-engine plane inside and out.
Coming from a family deeply rooted in Lufstansa, Austermeier followed suit. In 2008, while working in Germany, he was asked if he was interested in taking on a special project in America. He was told about a vision to restore a Starliner, delivered to TWA in June 1957 as L1649A N7316C , and named Star of Tigris.
"It took me all of about two minutes to decide," he said.
In the dead of winter of 2008, he saw the plane for the first time sitting in a snow-covered garden with another "Connie" next to the home of Maurice Roundry at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.
After 13 operators spanning the globe, the venerable aircraft had been sitting idle in this field for nearly 20 years with a belly full of water and rusting away.
"Looking at her, I set a goal of getting her flying by 10-10-10. Today we are saying, 10-14-14, or maybe 10-15-15," Austermeier said.
With more than 90 full-time workers from 15 countries, the facility has become a world-class operation.
"We have created the second largest facility in the state, and we are very well respected by the FAA. When we finish, it would be easy to pack up everything and leave, but we don't want to do that," Andreas Gherman, senior project manager for Lufthansa Technik, said. "We have created a state-of-the-art facility here that we are hoping can continue to operate after we are gone."
Inside the hangar were the teams of technicians, engineers and specialists working on the various parts of the airplane.
"We have Hungarians, Bulgarians and Irishmen all talking to each other, none speaking the other's language," Austermeier said. "They communicate by a universal language, the drawings. It's the common language that they all understand."
With a plane that has been out of service for decades and nobody manufacturing parts, finding original replacements is not only difficult but often impossible. For that reason, there have been many parts that are custom built, most on site.
At one point when in service, the aircraft was reconfigured to carry cargo instead of passengers.
To meet the goal of returning the plane to the way it was when it rolled off the assembly line in Burbank, Calif., in 1957, the big cargo doors had to be removed and new panels constructed.
Finding an original passenger door was nearly impossible, but two of the only known doors in existence were in a South African museum. Two new doors that look like the originals were built to give to the museum in exchange for the originals.
With the water system and other original features being removed when the plane was reconfigured, there was a lengthy process to find or manufacture these components. Aside from some updated avionics in the cockpit, the majority of the round analog dials and banks of switches, levers and controls will look and feel original with passengers sitting in accommodations from days gone by.
The engines have been stripped and rebuilt, waiting in storage at the Idaho facility contracted to perform that part of the project. With two spares, the power plants await the wings being finished before mounting. The wings, actually one giant assembly, have been one of the most challenging parts of the rebuild, with much of it, including the entire box section that connects to the fuselage, having to be replaced.
The Connies were one of the first planes to have "wet wings" where fuel actually touched the skin of the wings instead of being stored in a bladder inside them. "With the corrosion from the fuel and sitting outside in the elements for so long, it was impossible to salvage many of the panels," Austermeier said.
To the casual observer looking inside the hangar, there does not seem to be much progress made in several years. However, with having to remove, inspect, repair or replace every inch of the giant plane, the project has come a long way.
"We quite often have to make a mold, machine, or tool from scratch to manufacture a part," he said, because originals aren't available.
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the project was coordinating everything, he said. Recording, cataloging and keeping track of every one of the millions of pieces that have come off, been repaired or replaced, and put back together was nearly impossible, he said.
"Using some out-of-the-box software that has been developed for the airplane maintenance industry, and a work-flow process that we specifically designed for this project, it took a while to develop," Austermeier said.
One ingenious method is a pair of vending machines filled with packages of commonly used parts such as washers, screws and bolts. When a worker needs some, they swipe their ID under a scanner where the money slot would be. They punch in their selection and the item is dispensed.
The supplier and Lufstansa management can monitor the inventory and restock when necessary via the Internet. It's one example of the ongoing innovations and adaptations that many on the job refer to as the Super Complication Project.