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 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.

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.

We reminisced and he told me how he came to Eastern just a year before. The young Orion Air mechanic looked surprised while the two old heads talked. It became apparent that some of the old stories were true, or at least the lies were agreed to by two people.

"And do you remember our lead mechanic Watkins?" I asked.

"Oh yeah! Watkins! The fire extinguishers! You blew him out of that DC-4 wheel well and he came up looking like a snowman!" He used almost the exact words I had, for that is really what Watkins looked like.

The Orion Air pup stared at both of us. The discount rate went to 0 percent on my stories. I managed to sell him 50 yards of flight line, a bucket of prop wash, and sent him off after one of the few remaining sky hooks. I asked Nick if he could find me a left-handed Ford wrench.