Helicopters have become the main players in emergency response in the United States, responsible for saving thousands and thousands of critically injured victims of car or industrial accidents every year, especially those that occur in remote locations away from major trauma centers. In fact, highway fatalities are down across the country at least in part because of the work of helicopter EMS operations in getting the most severely injured patients to hospitals.
Helicopters are an indispensable tool for police in fighting crime, crowd control, and monitoring traffic. Firefighters use them to spot fires and even fight them. Helicopters have made electric power line inspections markedly more efficient especially in areas difficult to access by road. Offshore drilling as we know it today would not be possible without helicopter support. And they remain the transportation of choice for many high-powered executives.
While they perform an increasingly critical function, helicopters often do not get the public credit or respect for the out-size role they play in modern society. Needless to say, mechanics who work on these rotary wing aircraft are also rarely recognized for the skills and abilities they must possess to keep these whirlybirds flying through the stresses and strains of frequent takeoffs and landings, low altitude flights, and operations in often marginal weather conditions.
As helicopters have become more ubiquitous in everyday life, they have also become increasingly more sophisticated and complex. Maintaining them has similarly become an even more difficult job. When I first started working on aircraft in 1962 — as a line boy at an FBO at Hanscom Field near Boston — commercial helicopters were not very common. In terms of maintenance, the initial helicopters were pretty basic machines with spartan interiors and instrumentation for basic VFR flight only. The most complex and critical part was, of course, the rotor mechanism. Even then, while the helicopters remained relatively simple machines, it took a skilled mechanic to keep the rotor mechanism functioning properly. Rigging the rotor head required solid knowledge of how the system was designed and operated and skilled hands to perform the myriad adjustments necessary to get the rigging right.
Over the years, maintaining the rotor mechanism remains arguably the most critical and complex task for a helicopter mechanic. If the rotor is not rigged correctly, the aircraft will not fly right and you risk losing the aircraft. Today, however, in addition to the complexity of rotor maintenance, helicopters often utilize the latest in electronic technology, such as glass cockpits and digital systems, including digital engine controls. The latest helicopters even include fly-by-wire and automatic flight control systems. Mechanics who work on these latest technical marvels require in-depth, specialized training in digital electronics.
Although the aviation industry’s attention is often focused on fixed-wing aircraft, the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to maintain today’s rotary wing aircraft are second to none. We owe the extraordinary reliability of these machines in no small part to the men and women who maintain them day in and day out.
John Goglia has 30 years of experience in the aviation industry. He was the first NTSB board member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.