Ultrasonic surface waves provide a sensitive means to detect cracks in airplane structures. Until now several obstacles remained to use ultrasonic surface waves for on-line damage detection (i.e. in-flight). In this article a method will be proposed to detect a growing fatigue crack while the aircraft is operating. In contrast to classical ultrasonic measurement methods, that use a high voltage pulse, we applied an optimized multi-sine excitation signal with an amplitude of a few volts only (this agrees better with the applicable safety regulations for aircraft). Furthermore, an indicator quantifying the nonlinearity of the ultrasonic surface wave propagation is used. By using a nonlinearity index the influence of changing operation conditions that can be observed with most linear methods is eliminated. The proposed method is validated on a steel beam that is fatigue loaded with a force signal obtained from in-flight data.