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Charging ahead

There is more than meets the eye to aircraft batteries, as Ian Harbison found out when he visited Satair’s new overhaul facility near Heathrow

If an aircraft main battery fails in flight, the pilot must make a precautionary landing at the nearest airport. If it fails on the ground, the aircraft is going nowhere until it is replaced. Sounds dramatic for something as simple as a battery, but its primary function, explains Jon Ravenhall, Managing Director of Satair UK, is to heat the igniters to ensure combustion when the engine is started, hence the importance of having regular overhauls to ensure reliability.

The company, a subsidiary of Airbus, moved into its new facility earlier this year, becoming fully operational in March. This has four times the workshop space, six times the area and 11 times the cubic capacity of the previous facility, which Satair had occupied for almost 30 years. The move was prompted by a number of factors, he says – the UK Civil Aviation Authority said extra space was needed for growth; the company wanted to expand into electrical component repairs and become a European centre of excellence for dangerous goods; and warehouse space would allow it to become a logistics centre for the Airbus Flight Hour Support programme and support local customers (for example, British Airways stores radomes and leading edges for a fast response for AOGs).

As Satair currently handles around 7,500 NiCad and lithium-ion aircraft batteries a year (a 300% growth in five years), it is one of the world’s largest commercial aircraft battery servicing operations, with some 180 customers, ranging from international scheduled airlines, charter carriers, large low cost airlines and regional airlines to MRO companies, helicopter owners, business jets and private aircraft owners. Typically, around 90 batteries will be in the workshops at any one time. It is also one of the world’s largest aviation battery distributors, representing the top five battery manufacturers – ACME, Concorde, EnerSys-Hawker, MarathonNorco Aerospace and Saft. He says the company is the sole stockist in Europe and holds about 70% of world stock, the rest being in Miami, Singapore and China. „

All of the 14 staff members made significant contributions to the design, layout and functionality of the new facility, including custom-made cabinets in the workshop, and an additional five new employees have been recruited, with a further four expected by the start of 2019. The company has started a battery technician apprenticeship scheme through the local Way 2 Work initiative, with the first apprentice now engaged. CAA certification is available at age 21.

The lithium-ion batteries require special handling in the facility. They are stored inside special fire-resistant cabinets that can create a vacuum and send an automatic alarm if a thermal runaway is detected. They are inside a room with a four-hour burn time door. The cabinets also incorporate a valve that allows the fire service to directly inject water.

More general safety features include H2, O2 and CO monitors in the workshop (these gases are generated during the charging process from NiCad and lead acid batteries) and a high-volume air extraction system. The room is maintained at 19°C, the optimum temperature for charging. There is also a complex sprinkler system, with 154 heads throughout the building. The associated tank had to be modified with an increased diameter of 8m so it could meet the 12m maximum height rule near the airport, it holds 457m³ of water.


The environment has not been forgotten in the new building, with extensive use of PIR lighting and 144 solar panels on the roof – the company is paid for excess electricity sold to the grid, but, unfortunately, this cannot be used for battery charging, not least because there are two daily NiCad charging cycles of six hours between 0400 and 1900. Instead, the site developers had to significantly increase the size of the local substation.


Lithium-ion batteries had a bad press because of the fires experienced in 2013 by ANA, Ethiopian Airlines and Japan Airlines on their Boeing 787s. These were caused by thermal runaway. Satair does not work on this battery, says Ravenhall, which has three components, only on the Saft battery for the Airbus A350, which is fully integrated, combining avionics, charger and battery in a single unit.

This makes maintenance easy – using the Batcare automatic test equipment, the battery is checked and balanced, with any faults being indicated by error codes. A simple check with the Component Maintenance Manual (CMM) reveals whether the fault can be rectified by Satair or that the battery has to be returned to the OEM. >>


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