If you had business to conduct at the GE turbine engine plant outside of Raleigh-Durham, N.C. on January 14, 1999, you could not help but notice that the U.S. flag was flying at half-mast outside of the main entrance. You would probably assume that the flag position marked the passing of some important national or local political figure, or perhaps a GE senior manager, and not give it another thought. But at 12 noon, throughout the plant, something out of the ordinary happened. A moment of silence was held by all the GE employees to mark the passing of a man who never worked for GE, never held a political office, and yet this man left his footprints in every corner of the building and everywhere else in the aviation maintenance profession.
His uncompromising steadfastness and commitment to excellence in our profession was of such a magnitude that there is not a single airport, air carrier, repair station, or manufacturer in the U.S. and maybe even the world where a maintenance log book is signed, that his name is not known and respected. This man was a leader and a teacher who taught thousands of A&P students not only the skills of our profession, but the equally important lessons of commitment to safety, personal integrity, and professionalism. Any yardstick cannot measure this one man's impact on our profession. Lucky were those student technicians that were taught by James Francis Shanahan.
Jim Shanahan, or "Shanahan," as he was known by a generation of students of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA) from 1957 to 1995 — was also the only man on the face of this earth besides my father that I was ever afraid of.
I first met him February 27, 1967, in the first day's indoctrination class where he read us the "riot" act. He was about an inch or two bigger than I was, heavier, and walked like a boxer, with a slight hunch, moving on the balls of his feet with just the slightest roll to the right. On that first day, he left a very strong impression on me that here was a no-nonsense man, a man who never smiled, and never said more than he had to. And, in keeping with Irish tradition, he was never known to be free with a compliment.
Back then, I no longer considered myself a kid at 25. I was a Vietnam veteran and had mustered out with the rank of sergeant. Despite my military background, I knew in my heart of hearts that I better not cross this man. He was in charge, and if I did what he said, he would let me live.
In the classroom and on the shop floor, Shanahan demanded excellence, always raised the bar, asked questions you couldn't answer, and then told you to find out because your job and somebody's life might depend on it! I had him for four weeks in primary engines and many other times during the 18 months of school when he filled in for other instructors. I dreaded his classes — he was good, but he was not fun. He was about as warm and fuzzy as a mountain lion. A hard man to be comfortable with, but you learned in his classes — you had to — the alternative wasn't pleasant.
In June 1968, I got my A&P certificate early because I took it based on my military experience. Just as proud as I could be, I showed it to the "man."
Shanahan looked at me, looked at the certificate, and looked back to me and said, "I guess I better rip mine up now that they will let anyone get an A&P."
I just smiled because I knew that he knew that I had left the nest. I also knew deep in my gut that the little brown A&P card in my hand meant something very important to Jim Shanahan. In the remaining five weeks of school, he treated me just a little bit different than my fellow students. Not a whole lot different, but a little bit different, with a little more deference than if I was still just a wet-behind-the ears, pimple-faced kid but with a little less respect than an equal.
For the next 30 years, I never thought much about Jim Shanahan, I just did what he taught me to do. But, as the saying goes, "What goes around, comes around." I was destined to met Jim Shanahan one more time.
In July of 1998, the Allegheny FSDO asked me to give a maintenance safety program on the evening of September 19th at the High School just down the street from the FSDO.
On the appointed day and time, about 60 technicians showed up — and one Jim Shanahan. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him and his uncle, Jim Fisher, the past president of PIA, sitting in the front row to my left in the school's auditorium. What an opportunity for sweet revenge! The setting was perfect. We were in a school, and two-thirds of those people present in the audience were former PIA students — the numbers were on my side.
This time, the roles were reversed and I was the instructor in charge. Oh the sweet irony of it all! I spent the first five minutes of my presentation good-naturedly beating up the "man." Among other things, I told the audience that Jim Shanahan is the man responsible for my no-nonsense FAA presentation style because it is based on his classroom teaching concept that "Terrorism is a form of communication." I loved doing the roast, the audience loved it, and so did Jim. He laughed harder than the rest because he knew that I knew that his reputation was secure and nobody could touch him. He was an elephant in the aviation world and I was a flea.
Afterwards, I had a chance to talk to the "man." It was small talk, like "How are you doing?" and "What are you doing?" He said he was fine, retired from PIA since 1995. He told me he helped restore the 1927 Waco-9, Miss Pittsburgh, an early mail plane. The like-new, blue and silver Miss Pittsburgh is now displayed in the new terminal of Pittsburgh International Airport. I didn't know it then, but that plane would be Jim's last gift to aviation.
After some more small talk, it was time to go, so I grabbed his big hand, shook it hard, and thanked him for all he did for me despite my best efforts to lean towards the easier path.
He smiled at me for the first time and brushed off my compliment by saying that he still had high hopes that someday I would make it in aviation maintenance.
Mr. Jim Shanahan, my mentor, left us on January 12, 1999 and the world of aviation maintenance is poorer for it. I found out a few things about Mr. Jim Shanahan in writing this tribute to him that I would like to share with my fellow PIA graduates.
Mr. Shanahan was married to his first love, Catherine. He was the father of six children (five boys and one girl). He held an A&P, and was an active IA. He held a Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. A member in the Society of Licensed Aircraft Engineers and Technologists and PAMA, he was also the 1991 FAA's Eastern Region Maintenance Technician of the Year.
He was a coordinator for the annual blood drive at Allegheny County Airport and very active with the Meals on Wheels Foundation. But, the most surprising fact of all that I found out about that big bear of a man — the man who rarely smiled — was that he loved to play Santa Claus for little children at the PIA Christmas Party each year.
Jim Shanahan touched all of us PIA graduates in big and small ways and perhaps the best way to remember Jim is to take the time today and sit down and write his wife Catherine a short note. Send it in care of Mr. Frank Bria, Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, Allegheny County Airport, West Mifflin, PA 15122, and tell her and his children what the "man" did to change your world. As a final note, PIA is setting up a James Francis Shanahan Scholarship program. For those of you who also want to pay a little back to aviation and contribute to the scholarship program, please contact Mr. Frank Bria at PIA at the address above.
In final tribute to a man who had such a positive impact on my life and career, I would like to close with great respect by saying: "Roll on Jim Shanahan, roll on! May the angels mark your passing with love and respect and until I sit in your classroom again, may God hold you in the hollow of His hand."