Not Just a Poster on the Wall

April 7, 2016
We all got our start somewhere, and hopefully, someone took you under their wing and helped you get through those first weeks, months, years. Now it’s your turn to do the same.

New mechanics with their fresh, unused (and often unsigned) Airframe and Powerplant certificates have always been a source of amusement to the old hands. Where I came from in the helicopter world, we regularly sent new mechanics to the parts room for a bucket of the ever elusive “rotor wash,” laughing the whole time. Apparently, we were easily amused … But once you get them past that “initiation” stage, you have great opportunities to help out the new guys or gals. (For simplicity, I’m going to use the term “guy” here, but I mean no disrespect to our female coworkers) And they will need your help.

So what can you do? Several things. First, help them make sound safety decisions. When it comes to our business, safety will always be the default position. Yes, I know your business needs to make a profit. And yes I understand there’s pressure from the owner or pilot to get the aircraft ready. We’ve all been there. This is where your influence is so important. You must show each new mechanic where your priorities are, because he will make them his priorities also. If taking shortcuts or skipping “unimportant” segments of an inspection is how you do business, your new employee will pick up this habit very quickly. You have to demonstrate through your actions that safety is your passion, not just a poster hanging on the wall of the breakroom.

What else?

Help them take care of themselves and be helpful to others. Some of this is amazingly simple. Don’t allow someone to place themselves in danger. Engine inlets, spinning propellers, and decrepit workstands are all opportunities for disaster. When I worked on helicopters all of us were mindful of how difficult it was to see a turning tail rotor at night.

When you’re out there in a noisy hot rainy mosquito-infested field, it’s easy to take a wrong step or trip over a fuel hose that wasn’t properly stowed. Looking back, I can see that it’s a miracle we didn’t all die messy and untimely deaths. But we didn’t, and much of that is because we looked out for and took care of each other and our work areas.

Many of you work for major airlines and spend hours inside fuel tanks, walking on slippery wings, or handling very high voltage wires and cables. Don’t take unnecessary risks. There are so many ways to get hurt; corrosive chemicals, slippery floors, and rickety ladders are all snakes waiting to bite the unwary. Keep an eye on the new guy, and teach him to keep an eye on himself and his buds.

Help them select the right tools and equipment. When the big rectangular truck with the shiny tools pulls up behind the hangar, help the new guy make wise investments. An $85.00 screwdriver might be very cool to have, but that money might be better spent on a 3/8-inch ratchet and socket set from that place in the mall. Not that I don’t own that $85.00 screwdriver; I do. But I bought it after I’d been doing the job a while and could better afford it.

The new guy needs to have the basic tools needed to do the work, which may not include all the cool stuff. All that being said, I do believe in buying the best. The more expensive tools often work better, last longer, and just feel right. It's OK for the new guys to buy those tools, but you can offer him your unique perspective on what’s worked for you, and how to get the most bang for his buck.

Encourage them to use the manuals. Another astoundingly simple concept, but one that seems to slip past many of us. As an FAA inspector, one of the first things I look for when I enter a hangar is whether or not the maintenance manuals are out on the workbenches. I also look to see if they’ve been used. Pristine maintenance manuals make me nervous. I like the ones with lots of greasy fingerprints and folded pages. In this digital age, the electronic manuals are even better. They have quick links, great search functions, and are easily updated. Make it easy for the new guys to use the computer terminal, and train them how to use it. Expect them to use it. (Like you do.)

Encourage them and help them to succeed. Every new job has its inherent stresses. A new mechanic right out of school probably has lots of challenges. These can be financial, personal, and so on. I always believed in assigning work that made sense for a person’s skill level. The newbies will get discouraged if you give them work that’s way above their experience/skill level. If a brand new general aviation mechanic is given the job of changing the engine on a Cessna 152, he’s more likely to be successful than if you told him to change the center engine on a Falcon 50. So have the work fit the skill, knowledge, and experience level. Being a Fed, I also am compelled to remind you of a regulation; 14CFR65.81(a). I’d rather not quote the rule, but it isn’t long, so here you go: 

(a) A certificated mechanic may perform or supervise the maintenance, preventive maintenance or alteration of an aircraft or appliance, or a part thereof, for which he is rated (but excluding major repairs to, and major alterations of, propellers, and any repair to, or alteration of, instruments), and may perform additional duties in accordance with §§65.85, 65.87, and 65.95. However, he may not supervise the maintenance, preventive maintenance, or alteration of, or approve and return to service, any aircraft or appliance, or part thereof, for which he is rated unless he has satisfactorily performed the work concerned at an earlier date. If he has not so performed that work at an earlier date, he may show his ability to do it by performing it to the satisfaction of the Administrator or under the direct supervision of a certificated and appropriately rated mechanic, or a certificated repairman, who has had previous experience in the specific operation concerned.”

It’s longer than I remembered. I’ve underlined the part that’s important here. Before you assign the new guy work, you need to know if he’s done it before, and where his comfort level is. You also need to keep an eye on him and check in occasionally.

Don’t just hand the kid a maintenance manual and point him to the airplane in the corner to do an engine swap. The first time a mechanic does the work it should be under the supervision of a mechanic who has done the work before. (That’s you.) Once that has been accomplished satisfactorily, he can then supervise someone else, and approve the aircraft for return to service. I realize there is an alternative to this, as stated in the regulation, but so much of what we do is based on hands-on experience, I’m focusing on that aspect. So, when you follow the regulation, you’ve done two things; you’ve helped a new mechanic to complete the work properly, and you’ve kept everyone legal. A twofer!

We all got our start somewhere, and hopefully, someone took you under their wing and helped you get through those first weeks, months, years. Now it’s your turn to do the same. You have the privilege of working in one of the greatest vocations in the world. Set your standards high and hold the new guy and yourself to them.

Wayne Fry joined the FAA in 1997. His current position is assistant manager for the office that has oversight of American Eagle Airlines. Fry has worked in Washington, D.C., at FAA Headquarters, at the Southwest Region Flight Standards Division, and in several field offices. He is an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic and private pilot.