Coming of Age in Aircraft Maintenance

                Lessons from the Masters

30 years ago, when I was a young A&P mechanic starting out in aircraft maintenance working for an airline, I was surrounded by older, wiser and more experienced mechanics. Some of them took me under their wings to “show me the ropes”. These guys seemingly had nerves of steel, standing next to a screaming jet engine while it was running to rig a throttle, adjust a fuel control unit or just check for leaks. While I stood by trying not to look like I needed a change of underwear praying I wouldn’t get ingested or hit by flying shrapnel in the event the engine came apart. Mostly, I just held the flashlight. These guys could troubleshoot any problem. Sometimes they could tell what the problem was just by listening to a running component. A bad bearing in an air cycle machine or a faulty pneumatic valve in an APU apparently made a sound that only they could hear. Once a guy told me that the airplane talked to him. I called him an airplane whisperer. These guys were experts who had mastered their trade. Looking back on my career I consider myself lucky to have worked with and learned from them. These were real men.

 
One of the lasting lessons I learned was from a man named “Sarge”. He told me once after I had badly messed up a structural repair that “if a guy doesn’t ever screw up, he’s not working”. That lifted my spirits and let me know it was OK to make a mistake, just get it corrected. I’ve used that line on countless occasions since. Sarge was a rough cut former marine sergeant and aviation maintenance instructor, full of “colorful” expressions. He was a master mechanic, especially when it came to fabricating structural parts. I once watched in awe as he made a new inboard leading edge panel for a horizontal stabilizer on a 737 using only a hydraulic brake, a machine designed to bend metal, from a flat sheet of aluminum. I was then tasked with taking his masterpiece and fitting it to the airplane by drilling up the fastener holes and installing it. At the time this was at the limits of my abilities. I was extremely careful not to mis-drill Sarge’s work of art. It fit perfectly. As I stood back and admired our work it struck me how much trust Sarge had in me. He recognized that the only way I was going to gain experience was to just do it.
 
Did these seasoned guys ever make mistakes? You bet they did, but they were honest mistakes. I know I’ve made my share of mistakes. I always felt bad and incompetent when I made one. I still do. Not measuring up in the eyes of the men who freely shared their knowledge of airplanes with me, as long as I was willing to try and learn, was more punishment than a reprimand from the foreman for screwing up, especially if it cost money or caused a delay. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these guys left in the maintenance world. Sarge passed away many years ago, but he left a lasting impression on me.
 
“Passing the wrench” to the younger generation of mechanics needs to become a priority in aircraft maintenance. When I think of the knowledge that is lost when these guys retire or pass on I feel a sense of loss for our trade. We can’t get that back. If you are a young, inexperienced mechanic out there, find and team up with one of the “masters”. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of them. Be respectful and humble. Appreciate where they’ve been and the things they have done in their careers. Be willing to learn from them and keep the “wrench turning” for future generations of aviators. Someday you’ll be there.

Comments

Excellent article Mike! It definitely reflects not only our aviation mind set but the attitude of our entire society today! Unfortunately, I've witnessed this change in my lifetime. Like you, I was taught by many Sarge-type mechanics (you didn't dare call us technicians in the 60s!) who willingly and proudly passed on the 'tricks of the trade' to the next generation of grease monkeys.

But today we live in an I/me society. When I teach Dale Carnegie courses I use the example, radio station WII FM - What's In It For Me? Few people care about the welfare and success of co-workers not realizing that that it negatively effects their own. It's the take, take, take union attitude that's not just ruining aviation but our entire society. People can't enjoy what they have without coveting more in order to keep up with the Jonses!

Training and education have always been foremost on my mind as a D.O.M. It leads directly to safety and quality in aviation! It's a shame that so many knowledgeable technicians won't write their legacies with the education of the next generation...

Mighty impressive and so truthful. Lately I have seen three Nat Geo documentaries involving aircraft crashes all due to what I would call not regulatory performance of the aircraft cleaners/cleaning company. All these accidents were due to static ports being taped with blank tape instead of the red and white tape, making it virtually impossible for an inspector to notice and the end result of this malpractice was that it lead to the death of many people.Sloppy and irresponsible, not with a good mindset and unprofessional. During our 25 year of operations we have cleaned over 38,500 aircraft ranging from Mitsubishi MU-2 to Boeing B747-400 without any claims against us, but one which was by one of our trucks running into a wing of a Boeing 727-200F, which our client had repaired, refusing to bill us for the work performed. We still believe to date that the brakes of that truck have been tampered with, as there was no leakage of any oil yet there was no oil in the braking oil reservoir and the leads were found to be OK.But we know these things can happen, it just showed us that we had to take precautions in that direction too.

Posted by Lord Bart-Jan Mathot of Loch Leven and Glencoe via LinkedIn

Who is Lord Bart, I have seen him on linked in, and he is on evrey social network and singles site ever devised, representing himself as a Dutch Born Lord, in the aviation industry , with Scottish heritage. My Scot's mates are NOT impressed.

I guess he must have been inebriated when posting the above, as I have seen much more lucid comments on linkedIn.

Lord Bart, please explain ..

Dear Anonymous,
Born in Batavia (Indonesia) 23 days later renamed to Djakarta now due to the new spelling Jakarta (Indonesia), both parents being Dutch, which automatically made me Dutch too, I spend the first 8 years of my life there.
When my parents, due to politics in Indonesia, felt it unsafe to stay in Jakarta, the went back to The Netherlands, where I finished my education and joined the Royal Dutch Navy, becoming one of the two 'electronic - and psychological warfare specialists' in NATO in that time and was released due to a disability. Working in The Netherlands (of course), Germany, France, The U-K and Belgium, I set up several companies, but as I saw an opportunity in the Aviation Services Industry, I decided to try and become the best in my special field. Operating in The Netherlands, Germany and The United-Kingdom, I was once offered some properties, of which one came with the title of Lord of Loch Leven and Glencoe. I was never knighted by Her Majesty The Queen and therefore am not at liberty to call myself Sir Bart-Jan, but as the deed that came with the title stated that it was my duty to carry the title at every opportunity, I complied wholeheartedly, more so to honer the brave Scots serving in the liberating forces in Indonesia after the war, when three volunteers out of a group of twelve that offered to drive my father and my oldest brother to hospital as he was feared to die from dysentery, gave their life to protect my family.
I carry the title daily only to honor those who did the ultimate without being pressured or ordered, I absolutely do not carry it to honor your Scots mates.
It is easy to judge and vent an opinion, but with all due respect to you, if you have seen me on so many sights and the thought of me carrying this titled offended you for any reason, You could approach me, as I am not hiding from anyone(The fact that you saw me on so many sites is, I think, proof of that.
I was not inebriated as you suggested, but I do feel that when professionalism is shown, too many people disregard it. I do not.
Hoping to hear from you and your mates I remain,

P.S. I am presently residing in Indonesia again, where I re-married with a local girl, who already has given me two wonderful daughters, and who is making me a very proud father and husband, trying to make a re-start in the industry that i have come to love so much.