Lessons Learned

I am getting older, I can tell. The aging process kind of sneaks up on you when you are not paying attention. But there are other signs besides the wrinkles and turning gray. For example, now when I bend over to pick a sock off the bedroom floor I look around to see if there is anything else lying around within reach of my fingers, because it is easier to make one trip down there than two. I have noticed that more young women, some who I barely know, will hug me, and laugh at my jokes all because they think I am harmless. I now spend less time at the barber than I do tying my shoes. I grunt, loud and often. Pain is a constant companion. But it is also a friend who reminds me that I am still above ground making noise. Unfortunately, some of the noise I now make is as unexpected as it is musical.

While getting older and slower is the price of living six decades; they say wisdom is the reward. But the fates have the last laugh. When you become the wellspring of knowledge in a particular field, very few young people come and drink deeply from your pool of knowledge. Worst yet, are those ones and twos who just come and gargle. After all, the young bucks think, what possible tidbit of knowledge could the old guy tell us that we don’t already know. I smile quietly at this unsaid remark, after all, I remind myself, their total life experience is as deep as a puddle in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

In an attempt to justify my 42 years in aviation I have put together a list of lessons learned that I wish someone had given me these pithy words of wisdom when I was a brand new, right out of the box, aircraft mechanic. I invite new mechanics to come and drink deeply.

  1. The Federal Aviation Regulations set a minimum safety standard for airworthiness, performance rules, and certification of airmen and aircraft. If the standard is not met then there is chaos. When you have chaos in an industry or just in a single company, people die. Only a fool does not make it a point to learn the standard he will be held to. Don’t be a fool!
  2. Airworthy is not a word, it is a concept, around which we have built our profession. Airworthy is defined as when the aircraft or product meets its type design, or properly altered condition and is in a condition for safe operation. Airworthy is also what we are, who we are, and why we are doing what we do. If you cannot wrap your mind around this concept please try another profession.
  3. The most important certificate in the aircraft documentation is the registration certificate. If the aircraft is not U.S. registered then the FARs do not apply. Any work you do on a foreign registered aircraft, you are on your own.
  4. The Standard Airworthiness Certificate lists three FARs that you really need to know. They are Part 21, certification of products and parts; Part 43, mechanic rules; and Part 91, inspections. If these FARs are not complied with, the certificate is worthless.
  5. Know Part 43, section 43.13 performance rules by heart. This is the one rule that the FAA quotes almost 97 percent of the time when a letter of investigation has your name on it. If you pay attention to this rule the odds are in your favor that you will never get a registered letter from the FSDO.
  6. Your signature and certificate number is more valuable to you than a million dollars worth of tools. For around your signature and certificate number you establish your reputation. You can choose to be known as a professional or a person who can be bought. Choose wisely!
  7. It is a fact that within the first year of becoming a certificated mechanic someone will ask you to falsify an entry in a logbook. It is done so the company can make money or to save money. If you resist you will be berated as not being a “team player” or threatened with being fired or called many other things. This is your first and most important test as an aircraft mechanic. If you fail, and sign, even if it is the most menial of lies, then it is time to leave because you can never gain back your honor. Why? Because you have autographed a lie in your own handwriting and if you did it once, you will do it again.
  8. It is also a fact that the one who asked you to falsify a logbook entry will not lift a finger to defend you when the FAA finds out. More likely he will line up on the other side and accuse you, to keep the heat on you and away from him.
  9. Mechanics must make only YES/NO decisions because compromise, any compromise concerning airworthiness, can and will affect safety. You can tell when you start to compromise when you use qualifying words, like: IF, PERHAPS, MAYBE, COULD, and MIGHT. When you use these words in your decision-making process then you are compromising a simple YES it is airworthy or NO it is not decision, and if you compromise enough times in aviation you will kill someone.
  10. At your place of work, if you hear more about the bottom line than you do about making the aircraft airworthy, then it is time to leave. Because sooner or later that company will lose an aircraft and you don’t want your name on the logbooks.
  11. If you are not sure about something or not sure how to do it, call someone. Yes, you will feel stupid and awkward but it is better to be stupid and get the right answer than to remain stupid and silent and kill somebody. Try the manufacturer or another shop for help, even call the FAA for the answer. For some of you it will take the courage of the man who ate the first oyster raw to call the FSDO but the FAA has never violated anyone who asked a question.
  12. Your career in aviation does not end with the A&P ticket and a steady paycheck. You should plan your career as carefully as you plan your next date. Without a plan you are destined to remain a bit player in your own life’s story.
  13. If someone offers you a good deal on aircraft parts, it’s not a good deal. Those parts are either undocumented, out of date, counterfeit, removed from a wreck, or they are stolen. Deal only with reputable parts suppliers, it’s cheaper in the long run.
  14. Along the same lines if offered a take it or leave it situation for a career choice — leave it! If it was a real opportunity, and if they want you, the offer will be waiting for you tomorrow. Steer your own ship, don’t be third oiler down in someone else’s boiler room.
  15. This is something you don’t want to hear after going to school 80 percent of your life. You will need a four-year college education to succeed in this career field. Now more than ever because mechanics can no longer depend on their expertise of their trade to make a living as my generation has done. Today’s world demands that you must learn to interface with a very broad spectrum of people, trades, and management using new technology. Who of us 10 years ago would believe that today’s mechanic would be inspecting an aircraft wearing a computer? College will stretch your mind while improving your writing and communication skills. Without those skills you will be lost in a world of instant communications and your future career will be a question mark not an explanation mark!
  16. You must participate in your career outside of the hangar or line station. This means you must join an aviation maintenance organization that will give you access to current information. Leaders need to know what is happening both in your own backyard and in the world. You need to be active in that organization and be a positive force for change and not a magazine reader. You and your job exist in a global marketplace. Don’t you think it would be a good idea to know what your competition is doing?
  17. Since the FARs set the standards for our profession, and our profession is constantly changing, then it stands to reason that the rules must change to fit the new work environment. I am always amazed that mechanics do not think they can influence the federal government to make the necessary changes happen. Their excuses vary from being too small, too weak, or too few in numbers. And the worst excuse of all, “we are just mechanics.” It sounds like they are apologizing for being an A&P. It drives me nuts! Right now, the two-year IA renewal rulemaking is on track all because two guys from PAMA wanted to make it happen. I don’t care if you are the poster boy for “Introvert International” you can be that army of one and make a difference. Start by reading Part 11, Section 11.61. It’s an eye-opener!
  18. Never pass up an opportunity to become smarter. If offered additional training by your company, grab it. I don’t care if it is budget or inventory control. Like President Lincoln said, “It is better to have the education and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”
  19. Aviation is a very small world. It pays to build up a network of friends and professional contacts over the years. Save every business card you get and make sure you have your own business card even if you are so brand new that you have a maximum of two safety wire holes in each hand. You never know when you could help someone get a job or maybe someone will return the favor when you need a soft landing spot.
  20. Find the old, smart guy in your shop and befriend him. Listen to what he has to say. Yes, he will bore you to death with some of his stories of the good old days. Put up with his abuse because he envies your youth. But if you hang in there every now and then he will drop in your lap that tidbit of knowledge, that special insight that will open a brand new door of opportunity for you to step through.

In closing some might see this article as an old man’s rant or an ego trip. A rant it might be but it’s not an ego trip because my doctor will tell you that my ego is a lot smaller than my prostrate. I only offer these lessons learned at face value. Use what you can, discard what you don’t need. However, I would be interested in hearing from you if you found any of my life’s lessons worthwhile. Contact me. I will be on the web. But you don’t have to contact me right away. Let’s make it the day after, when you notice your father’s hand coming out of your shirt sleeve.