For a couple of years, our aircraft maintenance unit was commanded by a Colonel who’d done most of his time in civil engineering (CE). As most with a military background know, CE sees to the construction and maintenance of the base infrastructure, ranging from oversight of new buildings to ensuring the air conditioning work. CE runs the bulldozers, the road graders, circular saws, and ensures the lights work.
The Colonel had trained as an engineer in college and, given a projected major conversion of facilities to accommodate a new aircraft we were to receive; it seemed a good fit to have a fellow with a lot of experience with buildings and construction to guide us through this facility upgrade. Under the Colonel were several other officers and a host of NCO’s to continue the aircraft maintenance effort, so little changed from a maintenance standpoint.
To be sure, nothing in the military is constant and changed plans are typical. So it went with the change of aircraft; budget issues saw the cancellation of the new aircraft we were to get. With that announcement, our good commander was re-tasked to another place to continue his career. On his last day, with cake in the background and the traditional plaque in hand, the Commander’s remarks included an observation that we seldom think about in aircraft maintenance.
An infinite difference
The Colonel noted that, from the other places he’d been around, the aircraft maintenance section (hangars and ramp area) were like a black hole not ventured into or well understood by those working elsewhere on the base. Only after interacting with aircraft maintenance supervision and mechanics did he now understand there’s an infinite difference between people working with their hands on buildings, vehicles or HVAC systems and those working on aircraft.
Our world of aviation, which we see as the normal way to approach maintenance, is radically different from all other pursuits. Without detailed exposure to it, the best automotive mechanic or carpenter can’t know this world of ours or understand the standard to which we must hold ourselves.
What makes this culture of ours so observably different from that of the forklift mechanic, plumber, or carpenter? It’s not because we’re smarter … I’ve found plenty of people smarter than me working in other disciplines.
No, it’s more the limitations within which we work and the terrible consequences that come of error. If a carpenter’s wall isn’t built correctly, cracks may develop in sheetrock or the floor tiles may not come out looking right. If an automotive mechanic installs an oil filter wrong, the vehicle may roll to a stop on the interstate with an engine that’s wasted. If an aircraft mechanic makes a mistake, there’s a very good chance a mother will become a widow or a grieving parent will ride in a funeral procession.
Aircraft mechanics understand that from the time the airplane departs the earth’s surface until it lands, it needs to work perfectly. Even if you’re a pilot blessed with maintenance skills, trying to fix an airplane at 7,000 feet is impractical at best because almost everything that can go wrong is out of reach.
To do things correctly, aircraft mechanics educate themselves thoroughly on the task by reading technical information, getting technical training, and asking questions of others with experience. Aircraft mechanics always understand aircraft maintenance is a nonstop learning experience, from the day they enter the business to the day they retire from it.
Aircraft mechanics know the equipment they work on is built to exacting standards, whether the aircraft is a fabric-covered Aeronca or a Boeing 747. They know the designers managed to get this contraption to fly only through a careful design process (even if they forgot that maintenance is part of that design) and the design can’t be changed unless the mechanic wants to be responsible for the new, unapproved design.
Most importantly, the aircraft mechanic understands his/her responsibilities and develops a working personality that embraces that responsibility. Instead of using the terms “maybe” or “I think I can shore that up,” we use terms like, “No. It’s illegal and I cannot let you fly it like that.” “I won’t sign it off in that condition because it’s not safe.” And so it goes.
To illustrate, I’ll relate an experience of mine.
It’s been 18 years since I decided to build my own house, a large four-level split. Why? It was a challenge and I wanted to take advantage of my own “sweat equity.” While some things I simply didn’t have time to do, I found wiring the house pretty straightforward and ended up getting my work inspected by the city electrical inspector, who knew I’d legally accomplished my own work. “Where did you learn how to run electrical wiring?” he asked.
“I’m an airplane mechanic.”
He responded, “That’s about the most thought-out wiring job I’ve ever seen … it’s not common to find wire run in an attic where it won’t get stepped on.” At which point I asked him if he could show me the proper way to install a circuit breaker.
Aircraft mechanics are different.
Clint Lowe holds an FAA A&P certificate with Inspection Authorization and a commercial pilot certificate with instrument and multi engine ratings. He has spent most of his aviation career with the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard in a variety of roles including maintenance, safety, training, oversight, and accident investigation. He currently is a QA inspector/QA representative with the North Dakota Air National Guard in Fargo, ND.