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.
Next week I will be attending NBAA. For those of you outside of the business aviation world this is the National Business Aviation Association once a year meeting. For three days more than 30,000...
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Tony Vasko recalls some of the memorable characters on the ramp.