Who Are You?

I still teach two- or three-day classes at least once a month in human factors and FARs to mechanics and repair station personnel. Usually, right at the beginning of a human factors class I ask my students to answer what I consider is the hardest question in the world. I tell them it’s the world’s hardest question because only they can answer it, and the answer has to be true, because they can’t lie or put a political spin on the answer.

Once I get their attention, I tell my students to take a couple of minutes and answer the question: “Who are you?” At first blush, I can see in their eyes that they consider it a really dumb question, and their instructor is an idiot. Well I might be an idiot, but I am a persistent one. So I make the question a bit more complex when I add just two more words to the question. The words are “Character and Integrity.” I then tell them on a scale from 1-10 with 10 being the best and 1 the worst, rate your own character and integrity.

Character, I explain, is who you are when no one else is around, and Integrity is how you deal with other people. Now I never see their answers, it’s none of my business, but at least all the members of my class have tentatively identified in their own mind the “human” in my human factors class.

Then I move from the profound to the ridiculous and ask them if they ever had problems talking with pilots? Well that lights up the classroom discussion and a few tell war stories that cast aspersions on some poor pilot’s family tree they claim has no branches or that his mother answers to the name: Spot!

Before it gets out of hand I then ask the question: “Why can’t mechanics and pilots get along?” “Why can’t we communicate?” No one on either side of the fence can give me an answer, because it’s always the other guy’s fault. So I walk to the easel and write the words mechanic and pilot and proceed to write down the profile or attributes of each.

Now, before I get into explaining the differences between mechanics and pilots I have a disclaimer statement to make. Not all mechanics display the attributes I have listed nor do all pilots. But I sincerely believe that most mechanics and pilots have many of the attributes that I have described. I myself am hard over on the mechanic side of the line so I am not picking on mechanics for the fun of it. Now to justify my examples.

Mechanics are conservative people. We are the steady Eddies of the world. I usually ask my students how many have bought a watch at Wal-Mart or Kmart for under $50 and wear the same watch to work and church on Sunday. Well the hands tell me that almost everyone does. Mechanics figure, why pay for two watches when one tells the time.

Pilots are risk takers because flying is inherently risky. They like the fact that they are risk takers and they buy very expensive watches with many dials and knots that can calculate the orbits of Jupiter’s moons. For the most part the watch is useless in the cockpit but it is used as a risk-taker’s badge not to tell the time, but to identify to the world that he or she is in the risky business of being a pilot.

Mechanics are poor communicators. Aviation mechanics are for the most part closed mouth souls, who quietly go about their business of fixing aircraft. High school English was not one of our favorite subjects. I still don’t know what a dangling participle is. For the other attributes listed below mechanics do not have a burning need to explain themselves. Many of us find it hard to write a letter and if we must we deliberately keep it short and sweet.

Pilots are good communicators. Mechanics’ unobtrusive approach to spoken or written word is in stark contrast to the endless self-promoting repartee of our flying brethren. Pilots are in love with words and especially writing. Their most creative and inspirational writings are found justifying each trip’s expense account.

Mechanics are yes/no decision makers. If you really think about it, our whole profession is about yes/no decisions: It’s airworthy or it’s not, the plane goes to the gate or stays in the hangar, we have the part or we AOG it. This yes/no approach world we live in every day makes it almost impossible to compromise with people. How does someone deal with an individual who says: “What part of no don’t you understand?”

Pilots are compromisers. They have to be. I don’t know of a single pilot who believes he or she will fly the flight plan as originally written. There are always “pop ups” such as weather, ATC en route course changes, or mechanical problems that require a person who is good at compromises.

Mechanics are process oriented. We do things in steps: 1-2-3-4-5. This is how we are trained and this is how our maintenance manuals are written and heaven help the person who suggests that we start with step 3 before we have finished steps 1 and 2.

Pilots are goal oriented. The pilot’s main mission of each flight is to get there. Whether the flight is 100 miles or 10,000 miles, their destination is their focus. The process is always secondary to the goal. The pilots‘ secondary goal other than reaching their destination is to have the same number of take-offs and landings in their logbook.

Mechanics are visual-based people. Mechanics need to “see” the problem. That is why when a pilot brings in his aircraft and explains the problem he is experiencing, it is almost a certainty that the mechanic will say either: “Let me see it, or let me take a look at it.” But it’s not only talking with pilots that we need to “see.” How many times in the last month have you drawn on the back of an envelope, a wiring diagram or a sheet metal repair to explain to another mechanic what has to be done. The real reason on why you draw the picture is not so the other guy can “see” what you want done, it’s because you need to “see” it before you can explain it.

Pilots are abstract people. Pilots’ brains are wired differently than ours. They can take an abstract concept and make sense out of it. For example, a pilot looks at an IFR approach plate for an airport. For all intents and purposes the plate is a two-dimensional piece of paper. It has length and width but no real depth. Yet the pilot can see himself flying in a 3-dimensional environment. That takes abstract thinking to pull that off.

Mechanics trust themselves. We find it hard to trust anyone else. I believe this is because we sign off all the work we do. We own the aircraft until we release it. Since we sign it off under our name and certificate number it’s hard for us to “trust” someone else with our responsibility and put our name and certificate at stake.

Pilots trust everyone. Pilots are more trusting souls. They have to believe in others. From the guy who fuels their plane, maintenance that’s performed, to air traffic control instructions. They have the need to trust others and for them it is not hard.

Mechanics are introverts. Part of the reason for our stoic approach to aviation maintenance is because the vast majority of mechanics are introverts. Now being pegged as an introvert is not a bad thing. I am an introvert. All the word means is we keep things to ourselves and we are modest in our dealings with other people. This is why mechanics are always in the back of a picture when the group shot of pilots and mechanics is taken. On the plus side we can be alone, but we are never lonely.

Pilots are extroverts. Extroverts need a crowd around them to feel alive. They are constantly performing, constantly in motion. They feed off the emotional energies of the people around them. Most extroverts are border line ADD. They jump from one subject to another. It drives us mechanics crazy.

Mechanics are morning people. The reason for this is because we are introverts. Our most productive time, the time where we have the most energy is in the morning or if we have adjusted to a swing or night shift the most productive time is the first six hours.

Pilots are late afternoon or evening people. Again the reason is because they are extroverts. They shine in the later part of the day. They can party all night while a mechanic wants to go home at 9 p.m.

Now, why did I go through this little exercise? I have two reasons. First, my intent was to improve communications between pilots and mechanics by explaining where the other guy lives. Both mechanics and pilots can communicate more effectively, and with a lot less tension and stress if you know how the other guy thinks and what his comfort zone is.

My second reason was to improve communications between mechanics and airlines or repair station management. Because you see, I have found that managers, especially managers at large air carriers and repair stations, fit more easily into the pilot’s profile not the mechanic’s. So if you have a problem dealing with pilots or your first or second line supervisor, cut out the difference table between mechanics and pilots. Tape it to the lid of your toolbox or put it in a notebook. A smart mechanic before he has to deal with a pilot or supervisor would first ask the question: “Who are you?”