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.