Taking Orders

Ruminations from the Ramp Taking Orders By Tony Vasko September 2000 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...

The best extinguishing agent available at the time was CO2. This was carried in two banks of steel bottles in the nose wheel well of the DC-4. Being a very mechanical airplane, there were no electrically operated valves and the whole process of blowing the CO2 into a particular engine or heater was dependent on cables and selector valves. The controls were simple. First there was a single rotary selector handle, which was turned to direct the CO2 to whichever engine or heater needed it. To discharge or "blow" the bottles, i.e. release the CO2, there were two pull handles under the glare shield. Each handle would "blow" or discharge its particular bank of bottles. You had two shots at putting out an engine fire. In case of fire, first select the engine or heater in trouble (turn the rotary selector), then discharge a set of bottles (pull either handle). If the fire does not go out, pull the second handle. I carefully emphasize the turn and pull aspects for reasons, which become apparent.

Nick and I were diligently reinstalling the crew seats in the cockpit, but we could hear our lead Watkins cursing over something to do with the engine fire extinguishers. Another mechanic had been assigned the task of rigging (adjusting) the controls. He had come up with a problem and had asked Watkins for some help. Watkins, in his inimitable style, pushed the mechanic out of the way, climbed the short ladder and was now engaged in showing him how to do it. The bottles and valves were in the nose wheel well but the controls of course were in the cockpit in front of Rick and me. We were not involved, yet.

"Who the %$#& is up in the cockpit?" I had no problem in determining it was my impetuous lead mechanic.

"Vasko", I replied. I could tell I was becoming involved in the engine fire extinguisher adjustment process.

"PULL (his emphasis) the &^*&% red CO2 handle. I want to check out the rigging."

I hesitated and then asked, "You mean TURN the fire extinguisher selector handle?"

Pull, remember, meant, "blow" the bottles, literally. I exchanged looks with Rick who was happy that he wasn't directly involved.

The nose wheel well erupted in a stream of invective. I interpreted it to mean I had committed the cardinal sin of questioning his leadership, competence, and technical knowledge, didn't have ten years of experience, and probably didn't know "nothing."

"I said PULL the %&^*(&^% left handle. If I wanted you to TURN a &^(^% handle I would have said TURN a &^(^% handle." His rage at being questioned had overcome any sense he had and he was, in any case, unable to retract any statement or change any order he gave even when he realized he was wrong. Such is the price of infallibility and leadership for some.

"I'm PULLING the left red handle," I warned in the hush that now fell on the usually noisy hangar. Everyone could hear our exchange and all eyes were turned to the front of the DC-4. More invective poured up mixed with direct orders to immediately comply and "PULL THE #@!**&% LEFT RED HANDLE!" I obeyed.

I grasped the handle and pulled. Out it came and I could feel the resistance of the cable as it pulled through its sheath, then the pressure of the cutter heads on the end of the cable slicing into the sealing discs of the CO2 bottles. The roar of the discharge was gratifyingly loud and extended and finally decreased to a low wail as the last of the liquid carbonic converted itself into dry ice and gas. There was also the sound of a loud crash from the nose wheel well as Watkins was blown off the ladder. The lines to the bottles had not been connected. He picked himself off the ground and bounced into view down below the cockpit window. He was literally covered with frost and he looked like a snowman. He was speechless for several moments. But he did not fail us.

Unable to admit he had blown it, knowing that half the hangar had heard our exchange, Watkins came through. "Okay, I've got that rigged right. Now TURN the selector handle to the #1 engine position and I'll make sure its rigged." He disappeared into the nose wheel well, arranged the ladder, and went back to "showing" the mechanic how it is done. He never mentioned the incident or made any comment about it, but maintained the pretense that everything had gone just as he planned.

Thirty years after this, I found myself on a plane to JFK. Lockheed Air Service was long extinct and past as was a career at Eastern Air Lines. I was accompanied by a mechanic from Orion Air, a cargo operator. We were going to look over some surplus equipment that Eastern had put up for sale. On the flight, I spun a few stories of my experiences and among them was the little tale above. As is normal, such stories are discounted by listeners at a rate of about 80 to 100 percent even when the storyteller is the Vice President. I estimated this mechanic was in the 95 percent discount range, and he thought I was spinning a little air. We grabbed a cab and I directed the driver over the well-remembered roads to Eastern's old hangar 9. The hangar was empty and almost deserted where once were planes and people. Only a lonely caretaker remained on duty to show us the equipment. Who was the caretaker but Nick, the very one who had been in the cockpit with me on that long ago day at LASI.

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