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In Praise of Mechanics

I owe my life to aviation mechanics. For one, my father was an A&P (certificated airframe and powerplant) mechanic (now called "maintenance technicians"). But even if you don't so literally derive your very existence from airplane wrench-turners, you almost certainly live today because of the skill and professionalism of aviation professionals who keep the airline and general aviation fleet going.

I owe my life to aviation mechanics. For one, my father was an A&P (certificated airframe and powerplant) mechanic (now called "maintenance technicians"). But even if you don't so literally derive your very existence from airplane wrench-turners, you almost certainly live today because of the skill and professionalism of aviation professionals who keep the airline and general aviation fleet going.

Unsung Heroes
Mechanics get a bad rap. Legendary "airport kids" hung on the fence to stare at airplanes, hoping for a ride -- not dropping by the hangar hoping to pack wheel bearings or bust knuckles with a spark plug wrench (unless they were trying to trade "grunt work" for flying lessons). World War Two mechanics didn't wear shiny wings or inspire ballads; if anyone ever made a movie about the exploits of aviation technicians I've not seen it (Joe Patroni of the "Airport" movies came close, but even Joe checked out as a pilot by the end of the series). Cheap b*****d pilots launch tirades at mechanics over the cost of parts (priced, of course, by manufacturers), and complain about shop rates that pale in comparison to charges down the road at the luxury car dealer. We expect mechanics to help us deice wings, recharge batteries and start up balky airplanes without payment, at all hours of the day and night (especially on weekends). And technicians risk their reputations, livelihood and even freedom every time they sign a logbook entry. Yes, aviation maintenance technicians have it bad. Yet, so many are skilled, helpful and professional … and love it.

Maintenance "Personal Minimums"
Truly promoting professionalism in the ranks of aviation technicians, the Federal Aviation Administration's Aviation Safety Program distributes a "Maintenance 'Personal Minimums' Checklist." The FAA invites the true aviation professional to evaluate him or herself on the following:

BEFORE THE TASK

  • Do I have the knowledge to perform the task?
  • Do I have the technical data to perform the task?
  • Have I performed the task previously?
  • Do I have the proper tools and equipment to perform the task?
  • Have I had the proper training to support the job task?
  • Am I mentally prepared to perform the job task?
  • Am I physically prepared to perform the job task?
  • Have I taken the proper safety precautions to perform the task?
  • Do I have the resources available to perform the task?
  • Have I researched the FARs (Federal Air Regulations) to ensure compliance?

In short, the FAA recognizes that the true maintenance professional will get the right training, use the right tools; consider the negative results of fatigue or lack of concentration; observe safe working practices; and adhere to the letter of the law before and when performing all maintenance and repair -- because everything is critical in airplanes. The professional technician will honestly evaluate him/herself and show the professionalism needed to turn down a job if he/she cannot meet all of the conditions of the "personal minimums" checklist.

AFTER THE TASK
The professional technician will also evaluate the job after it's done, asking:

  • Did I perform the job task to the best of my abilities?
  • Was the job task performed equal to the original?
  • Was the job task performed in accordance with appropriate data?
  • Did I use all the methods, techniques, and practices acceptable to the industry?
  • Did I perform the job task without pressures, stress and distractions?
  • Did I re-inspect my work or have someone inspect my work before return to service?
  • Did I make the proper record entries for the work performed?
  • Did I perform the operational checks after the work was completed?
  • Am I willing to sign on the bottom line for the work performed?
  • Am I willing to fly in the aircraft once it is approved for the return to service?

The job isn't done until it meets specs, the paperwork's correct, and the technician is willing to ride in the finished product. The true aviation maintenance professional takes pride in the finished product.

Charles Taylor Award
The FAA recognizes the very greatest among aviation technicians with the Charles Taylor Award. Charles Taylor is an indispensable, yet virtually unknown part of aviation history. Mr. Taylor is known as the first aviation mechanic in powered flight. In six weeks he built the first engine for the Wright Brothers, using "only a lathe and a drill press" to machine that first 179-pound, 12 horsepower engine out of raw metals. Mr. Taylor went on to be the Wrights' engine mechanic, then followed a career in aviation maintenance that took him to the jet age when he retired in 1946.

There have been over 365,000 certified aviation mechanics since the government first started licensing them in 1927. To date, only 868 have been presented the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award. The criteria are as simple as they are difficult to attain. Nominees for the award must have (among other things):

  1. At least 50 years experience as an aviation technician. At least 30 of those years must be as a Federally certified mechanic -- the remaining 20 years may have been recorded in military aircraft maintenance or as an uncertified mechanic working under the guidance and inspection of a licensed technician. But at least 30 years must be under earned civilian, Federal credentials;
  2. No record of certificate revocation during the entire time he/she was certificated; and
  3. Formal letters of recommendation for the award must be presented from at least three Federally certificated mechanics.

Most recent additions to the ranks of Award recipients are Mr. Phillip C. Bohan, Mr. Rayburn J. Smith, and Mr. Joseph Snodgrass, who received the accolade at the first Southern Aviation Safety Conference, in Birmingham, Alabama, November 22nd.

BOTTOM LINE: Aviation maintenance technicians are the "unsung heroes" upon whom we depend for our very lives. Perhaps despite the popular image, and certainly without the glory of other careers in aviation, technicians are highly professionalized and invaluable to flying -- they are invaluable to you. You might recommend this highly respectable profession to youth you know as they consider their life's work. And don't forget the nature of the airplane mechanic's job next time your airplane is in the shop.

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About This Author:
Tom Turner is a widely published author and regular forum speaker at EAA's Oshkosh/Airventure and American Bonanza Society. Tom holds an M.S. in Aviation Safety with an emphasis on pilot training methods and human factors. He has worked as lead instructor at FlightSafety International, developed and conducted flight test profiles for modified aircraft and authored three books including: Cockpit Resource Management: The Private Pilot's Guide and Instrument Flying Handbook (both from McGraw-Hill). His flight experience currently spans 3000 hours with approximately 1800 logged as an instructor. Tom's certificate currently shows ATP MEL with Commercial/Instrument privileges in SEL airplanes.
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