Over the years I have formulated a personal hypothesis about the status of the maintenance side of the aviation industry and how we got there. It is my humble, and perhaps flawed, opinion that with a few rare exceptions, the flying public view mechanics as rubes who are capable of performing only the many mindless tasks it takes to maintain an aircraft.
Who, I wondered, created this totally negative image of a mechanic? After all, weren’t Orville and Wilbur bicycle mechanics before they were pilots? And, if history is to be believed, during the 1920’s and 1930’s, pilots had to be mechanics or they would never fly out of that farmer’s field with a paying passenger. But, back then the world was different and the importance of a good mechanic was not taken lightly, so much so that very first words Charles Lindbergh said to a mob of admirers after arriving in Paris were "Are there any mechanics here?"
I believe there were three factors that created this negative image.
World War II
Right now I can hear some History Channel wag say "Way to go O’Brien, blame everything on Hitler." Okay, it’s true, I don’t like the guy, but just hear me out. The U.S. military formalized the enlisted status of mechanics way before the war, but World War II institutionalized the status of mechanics in the minds of millions who served. The military decreed that pilots were officers and gentlemen by Act of Congress, and mechanics were sentenced to the enlisted ranks and given less pay, privileges, and status — where they remain to this day. To make matters worse, after the war, this military concept for ranking pilots and mechanics was then transferred, intact, into civilian air transportation.
With one rare exception, that being the American Airlines commercial that featured a lead mechanic walking through a terminal and talking about professionalism and importance of a well-maintained aircraft; for the last 50-plus years, Hollywood has picked up on the public’s negative, stereotyped image of a aircraft mechanic and put us on the big screen and on TV to serve as comic relief.
Those of my generation can remember Captain Midnight who flew his jet off a mountaintop and saved the world at every Saturday matinee. The Captain was a Greek god of good looks, which contrasted sharply against the amiable, short, dumb, less-than-good-looking aircraft mechanic named Ichabod "Icky" Mudd — with two "d’s."
Younger mechanics might remember Lowell Mather, the dim-witted and socially-challenged mechanic on the TV show "Wings" from the 1990’s. Lowell’s idea of a good time was to take a six pack, his .22 calibre rifle, and a flashlight down to the city dump and shoot rats.
Peculiar as it might seem, Hollywood portrayed both Mudd and Lowell as excellent mechanics that could routinely fix anything, in no time, using nothing at all — but that was all they could do. After all, they were "just a mechanic" — social misfits who were as dumb as a box of rocks.
Our own enemy
The third cause is us. How so? It’s because many of us believe the negative image. We may be stoic, hard-nosed, practical, and strong-willed individuals, but we are human. This negative stereotype of a mechanic has been around for over 60 years, and 60 years is a long time to listen to a soothing lie. Over time, even the strongest among us, — despite taking 9 FAA exams, attending 1,900 hours plus of Part 147 school training or documenting 4,800 hours of practical experience. After one hears, sees, and experiences the same lie enough times — one comes to believe the lie to be true.
The day you validate the lie is the day you catch yourself saying to your boss or spouse, "I am just a mechanic." It is only when you repeat it over and over again, "I am just a mechanic," that you take the next step. You begin to apologize for the profession you are in. Repeated enough times, those words slowly become your crutch for your failings, your excuse for not trying harder, your mantra to explain away individual weaknesses and defeats.
Now the lie has morphed into a belief. Now you have internalized the belief that you can never be considered a professional, let alone be recognized as one.
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