What Now?

March 9, 2009
A tribute to Bill O'Brien’s real legacy

What now? This is a good question to ask after the loss of a great aviation maintenance leader, Bill O’Brien. I saw him last summer, schlepping into a hotel room in Little Rock doing some consultant work for an OEM. We talked about aviation maintenance professionalism and some aches and pains.

My largest memory of him was just prior to my second or third IA renewal conference. I met him outside the hall, introducing myself as late but glad I could get here. He reassured me that there was plenty of room up front in a hall of approximately 1,000 people. Just my luck, it was a long walk up to the front.

Before entering the hall I couldn’t shake this image of vulnerability I had perceived from him. I asked how he was doing and while I shook his clammy hand he asked me if the topic of today’s meeting was relevant in my experience as an A&P. I asked this larger than life FAA bureaucratic monster the reason for his apparent anxiety. He said he dealt with this all the time before he spoke. We as A&Ps are a major concern for him and the anticipation of properly delivering an important topic for us was the source of his concern. He passed on the first rule of public speaking … humility.

He could exhort us all he wanted in a presentation, we knew he cared.

Losing a leader
I was conditioned in this industry to remember what all aviation maintenance professionals do when we lose a leader. We look down, shuffle our feet, kick the dirt, and wait for another one to come, especially the kind that knows nothing of what we do and wants to make money. I can hear many of you now, “I hope the new leader comes soon and restores all of the airline problems so I won’t lose my seniority ranking at the airline. Geez, it’s taking a long time; I wish somebody would do something!”

Have you asked yourselves any of these questions? There probably won’t be someone again like Uncle Bill O’Brien to come and hold your hand and guide you through the wilderness — we got lucky the first time. Quite frankly, it’s time we grew up.

I’m being critical because “we” have failed to live up to our professional discipline by leading ourselves into professionalism. We have failed to perform in this arena when we’ve had all the intellectual, emotional, and game-winning strategies handed to us by the likes of Charlie Taylor and the modern-day hero Bill O’Brien.

If you don’t know who these men are, buy the book “Charlie Taylor: the Wright Brothers Mechanician” and read all of Bill O’Brien’s articles in AMT magazine from 1990 to 2008.

What to do?
Here comes the paragraph where I say something that an A&P is just not supposed to do or be able to do. Wait just a second; let me climb up on the soap box. I declare the time is now for leading ourselves as a community of professionals. The time is ripe — we’ve had all the inspiration, we have the people, and before we lose whatever questionable grip we currently have on steering our profession, it’s time we take on the task.

Let’s start by first determining that after the loss of almost all the airline domestic maintenance to MROs and offshore MROs, that it doesn’t mean the loss of all of our business. As important as that business was it promoted an unsustainable business model. The call for A&Ps in domestic MROs, OEMs, and business aviation who know what they’re doing is now more desperate than ever. Consider what waits in general aviation with the technology wave hitting the cockpit. It’s just that much more complex and expensive. The supply of seasoned aviation maintenance professionals is dwindling far faster than the demand due to other industry competition and a worldwide economic catastrophe. Other factors like habitual pay and status attenuation are negative attractant supply factors to our industry that are aggravated by our nonprofessional status perception.

The education factor
We’ve now lost half of the teaching 147s (FAA certificated schools) in our business in the last five years but the call for aviation maintenance professionals grows. The fact is that those of us left are far more valuable to an industry in need. How does it feel to be a commodity?

Secondly, let’s understand that we have to finish our two-year education with two more to become accepted as professionals in this country. All the whining won’t change a thing.

Modernizing the FAA Part 147 curriculum and tweaking the hours required in the curriculum or fine-tuning the system with an outcome-based education policy won’t change a thing except make more money for the folks running the 147s. We need to focus the teaching institutions on advanced education. The Part 66 change initiative proved that we cannot afford future failed industry efforts that do not directly address our professional future.

Here is the time-tested professional advancement formula in our country: two plus two equals a four-year degree, which equals a profession. We add two more years of education where it is needed most: in avionics, like many forward-looking A&P schools are doing now. Creating a profession will draw the ranks of youth we need to fill it.

I know a certain aviation maintenance pro with tattoos all over his body. It was off putting as anyone in the industry would perceive, but I measured the character, knowledge, and integrity of this consummate professional when he was put in a lead position on my aircraft. I still can’t explain his appearance but I’ll thank every one of you who turns him away on your service visit if I’m going to be there competing for the best people.

Thirdly, we’d better decide to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps before Bill and Charlie Taylor collectively decide that the best thing for us is a real swift kick in the ass.

We are fixers after all. We fix problems in the hangar and are leaders of people in the hangar every day. It was Bill O’Brien who acted as my mentor in leadership. He was smart enough to mentor many. In fact, many of us realize this when we get together to discuss the pertinent issues of the day and what to do about them. (Clever old Irishman, stacking his bets like that.) We spoke many times over the years on regulations issues. It got a little more personal toward the end when I sent NBAA professional career advancement “Project Bootstrap” information to him and solicited his opinion. His AMT article title from the October issue may have indicated a level of support.

Moving forward, I wrote this article to honor Bill and to thank him for his lifelong dedication to us and his personal achievements by fulfilling with scores of other partners what his mission statement really seemed to be: Building a team of appropriate leaders to direct this industry and its people into cultural professionalism.

I’d also ask him and Charlie to keep a lit cigar for me and all the others that aspire to be with them, creating airworthy angels or chariots or something wherever they are. For you, I write to assure you that your future is being considered and planned. Get involved — it’s your future and you have leadership that was trained by Bill.

Brad R. Townsend serves on the NBAA Maintenance Committee as Vice Chair.