Ruminations from the Ramp
By Tony Vasko
I have worked with a lot of aviation and ground equipment mechanics and have found they come in a variety of sizes and shapes with personalities ranging from "maybe he should be committed" to near saints. The general run does not trend toward saintliness certainly but not to the other extreme either. I was offended by the characterization they gave Lowell, the mechanic, in the "Wings" television series. It certainly did not improve the image the public holds of us. On the other hand, the drive to change the honorable title of "mechanic" to "technician" or the European "engineer" doesn’t do anything either. "Mechanician" was good enough for Charlie Taylor who built the engine for the Wright Brothers’ Flyer. It's good enough for me.
There certainly are characters in the business, however. Some are very loud and profane and Lead Mechanic Watkins was a model of that. He led a mixed bag of a crew of which I was one. Some were old-timers who were content to work away their days as mechanics rather than take on any leadership responsibility. A few were new-graduates and green. Others, like myself, had a couple of years of experience and knew it all. Leads (or crew chiefs in some organizations) have a lot of responsibility, and it is not easy to control a feisty group engaged in a technical and demanding trade.
Watkins had adopted the only leadership model he had known, that of the top sergeant school. Under this he barked out the work assignments to the crew, harried them to keep them working, and brooked no suggestions. He would roam around making sure everyone stayed busy and that all work met his admittedly high standards. Given the level of our experience, some technical questions from the mechanics were inevitable for the maintenance manuals of the day were not always clear on how to accomplish some of the tasks, even assuming you could find the subject in the old ragged and oil-smeared C-54/DC-4 manuals. Also that was assuming that they even covered the particular model that you were working on. There were some wild variations between models in the DC-4.
Good lead trains their people by imparting their knowledge. When asked for technical help, Watkin's training technique was to push the mechanic out of the way and proceed to demonstrate how to do the job, all the while remarking on the mechanic's ancestry, ability, experience, brains, and skill. This did not make for happy relations with his crew.
I had my times with him and some were very good for he was after all, very knowledgeable on the airplanes of the day and could show you a lot. Other times were not so good, especially when his dander was up. On this particular day, we were assigned to a DC-4 overhaul and in fact had been working it for two weeks. Watkins knew the plane like a book. The tired bird was in Lockheed Air Services’ Hangar 7 at the then Idlewild Airport in New York. I was assigned with another mechanic to start putting the cockpit back together. The cockpit of an airplane in overhaul is a busy place. Everything seems to meet in that confined space, and we were constantly being called from outside to work some control or another: open #3 mixture and place the #2 prop control to full increase and the like.
A particularly important system in the days of gasoline engines was the fire extinguishing system. Every transport airplane has both a fire detection and a fire extinguishing system for its engines. The fire detection system sounds a fire bell and pinpoints the location of the fire to a particular engine. It is up to the now awakened crew to shut it down, close the supply of fuel, lubricating, and hydraulics oils, feather the prop, and work the extinguishing system. Because the DC-4 had combustion heaters, these also had a fire detection system and fire-extinguishing agent could be sent to them.
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