Bill O'Brien: 1943 - 2008

A tribute to Bill O'Brien

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Bill O’Brien was born on March 15, 1943, in Philadelphia. His parents were Lillian and Hugh O’Brien and he was the middle child, having two brothers: Jack and Ed. Bill went to St. William’s Elementary School and graduated from Father Judge High School in 1960.

He was a helicopter mechanic for the U.S. Army in Vietnam (from February 1964 to February 1967). During his R&R, he went to Hong Kong and vowed that if he ever got married he would bring his bride there.

After the army, Bill attended Pittsburg Institute of Aeronautics in West Mifflin, PA, to get his Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certificate. While there, he acquired his private pilot license.
Bill worked for 12 years as an A&P mechanic. Ten of those years were spent in Philadelphia where he met his future wife, Marie. Marie was also a private pilot. They met when Bill joined the local Civil Air Patrol where Marie was already a member. After two years, they were married on Oct. 27, 1973, at St. Leo’s Church. They honeymooned in Hong Kong.

While Bill continued to work in Philadelphia, he acquired his inspection authorization (IA) as well as getting a commercial pilot and flight instructor license. He and Marie also had two sons — Michael and Patrick.

In 1980, they left Philadelphia and moved to Northern Virginia so Bill could begin his career with the FAA. Three years later, they moved to Oklahoma City so that Bill could teach at the FAA Academy. Then, one and one-half years later, they moved back to Northern Virginia where Bill spent the rest of his FAA career working at Headquarters.

Along the way, while balancing a career and family, he received his Bachelor’s degree and later his Master’s in public administration.

During his FAA career, he presented more than 777 FAA safety seminars to more than 100,000 individuals. He also wrote more than 180 maintenance articles that were published in AMT magazine.

There were two professional accomplishments that Bill was most proud of:

He created the FAA’s Charles E. Taylor Master Mechanic Award which recognizes aircraft mechanics who have achieved 50 years of working experience.

Bill also worked with Eastern New Mexico University at Roswell to grant 72 credits for the A&P license to allow mechanics to obtain an accredited Associate’s degree by taking four courses. Bill was honored to give the commencement speech at the university just before his retirement.

After his retirement, Bill continued to give FAA regulation seminars in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Bill delighted in his wife and family and was especially pleased to come to know Patrick’s wife Christina as well as his grandchildren, Alexander and Caitlin.

— Michael O’Brien

FAA Natural Resource

By Carol E. Giles, Manager, Aircraft Maintenance Division, AFS-300

The aviation industry — and particularly the aviation maintenance technician — lost an icon and a best friend on Sunday, Nov. 9, when retired FAA national resource specialist Bill O’Brien passed away.

O’Brien’s achievements and contributions were well-known and far-reaching throughout our industry. Since 1990, he wrote a regular column for Aircraft Maintenance Technology magazine.

They illustrated the hard work and dedication of aviation maintenance technicians in an often-humorous way. One such article, titled “The Grease Monkey,” was a passionate story about a maintenance technician replacing an igniter box on a PT6 engine. Leave it to a truly gifted mechanic to write passionately about something like that and keep the reader interested and engaged! Another was “Ode to a Jumpseat,” an amusing description of much of what takes place while obtaining and completing a ride in the “jumpseat” as an FAA inspector during a cockpit enroute inspection. For those of us who ever had to deal with any of these issues first-hand, his articles were a delight to read.

O’Brien was a stand-up guy who fully supported the AMT. He strongly believed in the professionalism of our workforce and worked hard to achieve this recognition for us. He believed we could be more than just wrenches or grease monkeys. One way that he helped increase awareness of the AMT’s professional stature was by co-founding the Aviation Maintenance Technician Awards Program; another way was by creating and writing the advisory circular on the Charles Taylor “Master Mechanic” Award. In addition, he was able to convince educational institutions to provide college credits for our experience, allowing many of us college wannabes to go back to school and receive a degree in doing what we love.

O’Brien strongly believed in the well-trained maintenance technician, and believed that this training and learning should continue throughout one’s career. To that end, he made significant contributions — from writing articles to making hundreds of FAA inspection authorizations renewal and other safety presentations to more than 100,000 technicians.

Outside of the FAA, the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA) and Flight Safety Foundation recognized O’Brien with the “Joe Chase Award” for his contributions toward improving the knowledge, safety, and dignity of the aircraft maintenance technician. Additionally, the AMTSociety has a scholarship in his name.

In his 21 years at FAA Headquarters, he wrote and revised many official documents and procedures. These included more than 23 FAA advisory circulars on maintenance, numerous FAA orders, notices, information bulletins, and maintenance rules — the latest of which were the rules governing light sport repairmen.

O’Brien was a mentor to many of us at the FAA. When I first came to FAA Headquarters, I was delighted to learn that I would be working with the famous Bill O’Brien. He was well-known to the field inspector workforce through his articles, participation at IA seminars, and often as a leading speaker at conferences, among other things. When I first met O’Brien he was quick to point out that he had checked me out and announced that I might just be OK; however, I was still wet behind the ears and had a lot to learn about life at FAA Headquarters.

My first assignment from O’Brien was a research project for one of his presentations about IAs and the origin and evolution of this field. He showed me the legal library and how to look up old rules, statutes, and other policy documents. This special assignment was truly an act of kindness that showed me more than I would ever have discovered on my own. That was just one of the ways that O’Brien demonstrated his professionalism and helpfulness; he mentored me in ways that helped me be a better inspector and employee.

When O’Brien retired, many of his friends, former and current co-workers, and family attended the farewell luncheon and celebration. The turnout was overwhelming. It was a way of saying goodbye to a friend, a co-worker, and a true professional. O’Brien was the keeper of the safety flame for us. He talked about the retirement “happy dance” that he would do on his last day in the front of the FAA building, and how his leaving the FAA did not mark an end but rather another beginning in the next stage of his life. We all lined up outside and along the windows to watch as he did a dance that was surely influenced by an Irish jig.

For those of us at the FAA, his sudden passing was devastating. To quote Dave Cann, the former manager of the FAA’s Aircraft Maintenance Division, “I didn’t think that anything could get the tough old Irishman down. We’ve lost a strong Irish friend who gave his all. He will be sadly missed.”

Well, Bill, you are sadly missed, and yet we know you have crossed over to the heavenly stage of your life to the biggest and most well-equipped hangar we know. You are probably there writing your next article on what it is like to be an angelic grease monkey!

God bless you Bill, and our sincerest condolences to your family.

The Bureaucrat

By Jim Sparks, A&P, AMT contributor, AMTSociety Director

The memory is still quite clear. It was a major industry trade show and I was hoping to get a regulatory issue clarified. After perusing the day’s agenda, I noticed a presentation addressing regulations specifically for mechanics. It was about 30 minutes prior to the scheduled start when I walked into the room. It was then I noticed “The FED.” He was an un-intimidating entity, standing in front of the podium, reviewing his notes. I approached, posed my question and stood by for the usual “You’ll have to contact so and so for that.” What actually transpired was a precise and conclusive answer to my question. I thought “this is interesting,” and decided attendance in his presentation would probably be warranted. I gathered this wouldn’t be the usual dry, boring FAR lecture. I thanked The Fed and said I would return at the assigned start time.

The program began on schedule and the dialogue went as follows: “Good afternoon, my name is Bill O’Brien and I am a bureaucrat.” It immediately became apparent that the standard rules of seminar attendance did not apply. The first order of business was to appoint a time keeper. This person was arbitrarily enlisted from the front of the room to advise The Fed when 15 minutes were remaining and then to provide the cue to finish after the required time had elapsed. Within the first few minutes there was no doubt that audience participation was not only encouraged but expected and averting ones eyes would almost always result in placing the perpetrator direct in the line of fire. At the conclusion, I had learned considerably more than I anticipated and the objectives of the seminar had been accomplished.

I made a point to join the line of participants waiting to thank Bill for his efforts — plus I wanted to get his contact information as it would be valuable in the future.

About a month later a question came up that I thought would warrant a call to Washington. After the obligatory four rings, a voice message came on saying this was in fact the desk of Bill O’Brien and he was not currently available but please leave a message. My expectation of a return call was not extraordinarily high as I still halfway thought of this man as a traditional government employee. To my delight, he did call and once again my question was answered with the same high degree of professionalism.

I had the opportunity to work with O’Brien on numerous occasions over the years and have come to appreciate his wisdom and dedication to our profession. He was a capable wordsmith with a keen ability to see through the fluff and focus on what was truly important.

My only point of contention with O’Brien over the years was his self-proclamation as a bureaucrat. I can honestly say: No, Bill, you never were part of the bureaucracy — in fact, you have always been one of us and your memory will be kept alive through the programs you championed.

Thank you for your vision and insight.

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