"This little thing has been through storms, lightning and hail"

Stefan Wolf, Deputy Head of the A320 fleet
Interview with Stefan Wolf, Deputy Head of the A320 fleet
The very first Airbus aircraft operated by Lufthansa has now been retired. But Papa Alpha lives on in a new collection of upcycling products. Stefan Wolf, Deputy Head of the A320 fleet in Frankfurt reminisces on an aircraft with an eventful history.

Mr Wolf, on the table in front of you is a piece of metal ...

... to me, it's more than just a piece of metal. The material used to make this little key fob comes from an aircraft that I myself flew for many years.

What is it that connects you personally with the aircraft?

A significant proportion of the 13,000 hours I have so far flown were in this aircraft – now that definitely comes to more than 250 times around the globe!

And what was your first flight in Papa Alpha like?

I remember the first time I boarded; I was astonished. I thought it was incredible how well they had recreated the aircraft in the simulator. It responded exactly the way I had experienced it during training.

"As far as I was concerned, it meant increased safety"

Papa Alpha represented the debut of a new type of aircraft that was piloted using a completely new control system. Until then, aircraft had been controlled by mechanical cables that acted on the control surface actuators via pulleys. In the new Airbus, the "fly-by-wire" flight control system was completely redefined. In this case, electronic signals transmitted by wires are employed rather than cables. A side-stick is used to send control signals to a computer, which executes the input command while, at the same time, taking into account position, altitude, speed and atmospheric data.

What difference did it make to you as a captain?

As far as I was concerned, it meant increased safety. The electronics incorporated so-called "protections". This meant that any control signals from the side-stick that could potentially push the aircraft to its aeronautical limits are suitably modified and, if necessary, corrected. As a result, the aircraft remains stable in flight at all times.

Did that feel like relinquishing control?

At first it felt strange, and I still remember the discussion amongst experts and colleagues on whether and to what extent the new system took control away from the pilot. But in the end you're still definitely flying yourself, but with an additional layer of back-up and therefore with improved safety.

Stefan Wolf examines a model of a Lufthansa aircraft
Stefan Wolf explains how the side-stick operates
Papa Alpha's side-stick
"I once had a large wedding party on board"

Where does the name Papa Alpha come from?

It's to do with the aircraft’s registration code, D-AIPA. ‘D’ indicates the country of origin (in this case Germany) , ‘A’ designates a powered aircraft with a take-off weight of at least 20 tonnes, ‘I’ is for the manufacturer Airbus and ‘P’ (or ‘Papa’ in the NATO alphabet) stands for the aircraft type A320-211. The fifth letter is used to identify individual aircraft of the same type. As the Airbus aircraft was the first of its type in the Lufthansa fleet, it was given the letter ‘A’ for Alpha.

Papa Alpha was in service for almost 30 years, flying to 147 destinations on short- and medium-haul routes, including Casablanca, Aswan, Yekaterinburg and Baku, and it carried around six million passengers during that time. What were your feelings when the aircraft was retired in March 2020?

It felt a little sad, especially as it was an aircraft that I myself had flown so often. I can remember many situations that helped form a bond between us. Having to fly to a different airport than originally scheduled due to bad weather, for example, or still arriving safely at your destination despite the development of a technical fault aren't the sort of experiences you easily forget. I once had a large wedding party on board that was bound for Majorca. The bride and groom arrived straight from the church with their guests and boarded the plane. The sense of exhilaration felt by both passengers and crew during the entire flight was palpable.

Was the aircraft technically antiquated after three decades?

Regardless of age, all our aircraft are in excellent technical condition thanks to regular servicing. However, the aircraft no longer met the environmental and economic standards that Lufthansa has set for itself. The new "Neo" series Airbuses are constructed of lighter materials than the A320 and are more fuel-efficient. A new model consumes up to 20 per cent less fuel; that's approximately 500 liters less per hour. That saves resources and costs and hence also means reduced emissions.

"I'm a big fan of upcycling if only for the sake of the environment"

What happens to an aircraft when it's withdrawn from service?

About 90 per cent of the materials are recycled. That includes components such as computers, engines and the aircraft skin, which contains high-quality metals such as titanium and duralumin that can be melted down for reuse.

Lufthansa's goal, though, isn't just to recycle retired aircraft but also to ‘upcycle’ them – what do you think of that?

I'm a big fan of upcycling if only for the sake of the environment. I like the idea of giving high-quality resources from aircraft a new and different lease of life; they’re not simply converted into raw materials, but inspire designers to create beautiful things.

Like your key fob that announces ‘I was part of an A320’..

It's a piece of aircraft skin, and although there are another 30,000 of them, each fob is unique. Some are blank, while others bear a trace of the original yellow crane logo or the lettering. They are little precious items with great symbolic value. Every one of them could tell its own story, has flown tens of thousands of kilometers, and has been through storms, lightning and hail.

Are keepsakes like this just for people who have been directly involved in aviation?

No, the interest is much broader. From what I can see, people are generally becoming increasingly aware of the need to curb resource consumption and protect the environment, and upcycling is one strategy we can use that is also aesthetically pleasing. Besides which, every product is useful, regardless of its background.

"Every one of them could tell its own story, has flown tens of thousands of kilometers"

In addition to the key fob, the Lufthansa Upcycling Collection also includes a wall-mounted bar made of aircraft skin, a variety of coffee tables made of slats or speedbrakes, and pieces of furniture such as a sideboard or a cabin door bar. What's your favourite?

Personally, I think that the ‘Flying Coffee Table’ directly captures the dynamics of flight. It's a great example of what upcycling can achieve. It is a piece of a slat, hollowed out and stiffened to reduce weight. The result is a new designer object that also offers an insight into aircraft construction. I find it fascinating.

And what else catches your eye?

Actually, I think all the items are great. The important thing is that every upcycling product is accompanied by information on its source. Customers want to know where the product they've bought comes from. It makes each object a one-off with a unique back story.

The A320 Papa Charlie will also soon be retired and form the basis for new lifestyle products – how did that aircraft differ from Papa Alpha?

Essentially, only in that it had a different registration code. The two aircraft were manufactured side by side at the Airbus plant in Toulouse. Papa Charlie also has an eventful history, and I'm glad that the Upcycling Collection will soon give this aircraft a future as well.