History in the Making

The clock radio on my dresser snapped to life right in the middle of a late night deejay’s nasal introduction of the next country and western tune. Ignoring the plaintive wail of misbegotten love and using slits for eyes, I looked at the red digital readout on the clock face — 4:15 a.m.! Oh, pain and misery, I was warm, I was tired, I didn’t want to get up, but I had to. Today, Oct. 22, 1999, was a very important day, a little bit of aviation maintenance history would be made this day, and I had to be there; I had given my word to a zealot.

History notwithstanding, two and a half hours later, I was onboard a Boeing 757 and strapping myself in the jump seat’s five-point harness. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of riding a jump seat, the one in a 757 is bolted on the rear bulkhead behind and 14 inches above the captain’s seat. Once strapped in, you have a great view of the overhead circuit breaker panel. Waiting for push back, I felt like I was on display — like a butterfly pinned to black velvet.

Three and one half hours later, descending from 37,000 feet into the Denver airport, my back and I came to the same conclusion that this particular jump seat I was warming must have been designed by an aerospace engineer who should have studied harder in school.

At 10:30 a.m. local time, the zealot met me at the gate. Tom Hendershot, at 5 feet 9 inches, is a quiet spoken guy in his 50s who has been in aviation maintenance all his adult life. He is a man who chooses his words as wisely as he chooses his goals and objectives, but, I have found out that just under the surface of this unassuming man, an unabashed zealot resides.

Tom works for the new Frontier Airlines whose motto is “Spirit of the West.” A year ago this undercover zealot — this man who passionately believes in our profession arbitrarily decided that he was going to do something that was never done before. He was going to make Frontier Airlines the very first, large air carrier to have 100 percent of its 232 eligible mechanics earn FAA Aviation Maintenance Technician (AMT) awards. 

At the same time, Frontier Airlines would earn the FAA’s Diamond Certificate of Excellence award. The FAA’s Diamond award is issued to organizations who have 25 percent or more participation in the FAA AMT program. Several large airlines have previously earned the Diamond Award of Excellence, but 25 percent or even 50 percent participation was not good enough for Frontier’s resident zealot. Tom wanted Frontier to be the first Part 121 air carrier to get 100 percent participation in the award program.

Earlier in the year, in March, I had a chance to talk at length with Tom when he told me what he was going to do. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure he could do it and I told him so, but then again there was something about the fire in his eyes, that look of determination, that feeling of quiet confidence that I couldn’t ignore. So taking the bait, I said, “Tom you pull this off and I will be there.”

Tom later told me during our many telephone conversations that it was easy to gain the support of Sam Addoms, the president and CEO of Frontier, as well as Jon Bartram, the vice president in charge of maintenance. It was harder to convince 232 mechanics of the importance of this quest. Many of them were not quite sure what this Aviation Maintenance Technician award was all about, after all, wasn’t it an FAA program? A few mechanics that came to Frontier from general aviation had a working knowledge of the AMT award program, but never gave it a thought that air carrier mechanics were eligible too. 

Tom went to work convincing the mechanics on the hangar floor that this was a very important personal and company goal. He handed out to his mechanics the FAA Advisory Circular 65-25 that explains the AMT program so they could read about it. He set up OJT classes to teach them the required two-hour classes on the FAR, as well as to record all that attended the Frontier’s maintenance training classes at Boeing and other equipment manufacturers. He worked with Monty Taylor, the Denver FSDO’s safety program manager for airworthiness, to coordinate this ever-growing, complicated task. He spent nights and weekends, on his own time, on this project — that’s how you know for sure a person is a zealot — they have this “whatever it takes” attitude.

In August, Tom called me and told me that Frontier reached its goal and the award ceremony would be on Oct. 22, in Frontier’s hangar at Denver. I smiled into the telephone and said “Tom, I will be there.”

Driving from the main terminal to Frontier’s hangar, Tom gave me the readout on the AMT award winners. There were 16 Bronze award winners, 11 Silver, 43 Gold, 126 Rubies, and 36 Diamonds. I wasn’t surprised to see Tom’s name as one of the Diamond award winners; zealots push themselves harder than anyone else. I mentally totaled up all the hours of training it took for Frontier to achieve this award and it came to approximately 12,000 hours of regulatory and maintenance training. In real dollars and loss of productivity on the hangar floor, Frontier Airlines in 1999 invested over $6 million for 12,000 hours of training for their mechanics. What did Frontier get for its money? A better-trained workforce, better fleet reliability, reduction in re-work, higher employee morale, less employee turnover, and increased customer satisfaction. All in all, not a bad deal for $6 million.

At 11:30 a.m., it was time for pictures — this moment in history would have to be immortalized. I have stood for group shots before but never with 201 mechanics. In fact, there were so many mechanics, that in order to get everyone to get into the picture, all the mechanics had to be perched on four tiers of a maintenance tail stand for a 737, and on the hangar floor. The photographer had to stand half way across the hangar to take the shot.

I was glad when the picture taking was over, after all, one can only hold one’s stomach in just so long. I spent some time talking with the mechanics as we stood in line for the barbecued ribs. Some of them seemed surprised that this was such a big deal with Frontier senior management and FAA shaking hands and smiling and such, after all, all they did was get some training. They didn’t quite realize the size and scope of the commitment that Frontier had made with their maintenance employees. Nor did they see the commitment the FAA has made to the maintenance community in recognizing individual mechanics and organizations who make such a serious commitment to excellence. I smiled to myself, knowing that in time they will see, and when they realize the impact of this day’s events, a few more zealots will be born.

With Tom serving as the master of ceremonies, first on the agenda was the FAA presentation of the Diamond Award of Excellence. Jeff Roy, manager of the Denver FSDO, presented the award to Jon Bartram, VP of maintenance for Frontier. Bartram, thanked the FAA and his employees for their participation and promised to duplicate the achievement next year.

Next, a special FAA recognition award was given to the widow of Mr. Duane Johnson. Mr. Johnson worked in the Frontier training department and, up until the time of his passing, was an ardent supporter of the AMT awards program. His loss was keenly felt by his family, friends, and by Frontier.

Next, each of the 201 mechanics was called up to receive their individual award and pin. Tom asked me to help give out the awards. Hey, no problem, but when you give out an award, the accepted practice is to shake the award winner’s hand. To be honest, shaking hands with the first 50 or so mechanics wasn’t too bad, but these were mechanic’s hands I was shaking, not the soft, limp, bureaucratic hands I have to shake in Washington.

I quickly found out that an average Frontier mechanic’s handshake could quite easily crush a cue ball. A few of the mechanics waiting in line for their award saw my discomfort and took pity on me, and shook my hand with a light grip, a few others did not. After experiencing these guys’ grips, I would have bet money they could install and remove a cleco in sheet metal without using the pliers.

I presented the last award, a Diamond award, to Tom Hendershot, Frontier’s resident zealot. He received a special one with a gold seal that recognizes the fact that he has received an AMT award every year for the last five years.

After I presented the award to Tom, we shook hands while the mandatory picture was taken; then he left me alone on the podium to say a few words to the award winners. I told them that I did not want to be here today, but I had to be here — it was a moment of aviation maintenance history. Frontier Airlines was the first of the large air carriers to achieve 100 percent participation in the AMT awards program. I talked about commitment, the drive for excellence, and pride in our profession. I closed, as per Tom’s request, with my signature closing, “If you work with your hands, you are a laborer; if you work with your hands and your mind, you are a craftsman; but if you work with your hands, your mind, and your heart, then you are a professional.”

As Tom and I said our goodbyes at the gate in the main terminal, he told me Frontier would want me back next year, because he already had the training program set up to get every eligible mechanic an AMT award. I said, “Tom you do it, and I’ll be there,” and I shook his hand.

An hour and half later, with my body strapped in another 757 jump seat and climbing to 37,000 feet and heading east, I was thinking about what would happen to this aviation industry of ours if other airlines, repair stations, and individuals would have the chutzpah to make the same commitment to excellence that Frontier has made.

My philosophical reverie was interrupted by the more practical consideration that my right hand had now swollen to a third bigger than its original size. The increase swelling was probably due to the rise in cabin pressure altitude, and for the remainder of the three-hour trip, it hurt a lot. But, a little pain was worth it; it was a small price to pay when you get a chance to see a little history in the making.