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The Real Poop

Three Blue Angels fighter jets screamed through the valley, the airplanes' wingtips just feet apart as the jets flashed past only 20 feet off the ground. Your entire body vibrated from the thunderous noise as you watched the planes break formation and climb steeply into the brilliant blue sky. Thousands of air show visitors melted into the background as you and your dad watched the jets climb, roll, and dive at blindingly fast speeds. What a rush to fly one of those, you thought. What a feeling of power for the pilot. You were even more captivated, though, by the thought of making thousands of pieces of metal, miles of wire, and millions of dollars of components mesh together perfectly. You wanted to be the one to track down the source of the red warning light, to find out why the engine made that strange noise that could indicate real trouble. You wanted to be the one to fix these problems so the pilot could scream through the air again.

Your endless fascination with fixing things started sometime in your toddlerhood. You began with a plastic tool set your dad bought you one Christmas. You soon got bored with that, though (and at that time, your toy hammer was breaking more things than it was fixing), and you began collecting real, grown-up tools. Your tool collection kept expanding to fill larger and larger toolboxes.


You began to take your mother's small appliances apart when you were eight; miraculously, you put them back together without any leftover parts. Your newfound confidence spurred you on to larger appliances, and then to your father's car. You met with mixed success on this front, but refused to give up until you found a home for all the parts. Sadly, some of those parts found a home under your bed. Well, you couldn't exactly admit defeat now, could you?

When you were 12 years old, your dad introduced you to airplanes. He took you to your town's regional airport to see small private planes whiz down the runway and soar into the clear blue sky. You pressed your nose against the fence to see the occasional private jet swoop in to refuel its tanks. Something began to click in your head. You loved planes, loved to watch them fly. But even more than that, you were sure you could fix them if they broke. You wanted a job that would let you do that.

So you became an aircraft mechanic. Airplanes have needed maintenance as long as they have been zipping through the air. Do you think Wilbur and Orville Wright accomplished their amazing feats without maintaining their fragile aircraft? How about the barnstormers of aviation's early days? Or the World War I and II fighter pilots?

Look at the thousands of private aircraft flying today. Pilots take off in crop dusters, private planes, firefighting aircraft, and workhorse cargo planes. Thousands of commercial aircraft criss-cross the country daily. Every one of those airplanes must be professionally maintained by a certified aircraft mechanic. These specially trained fix-it men (and women) aren't randomly dismantling expensive equipment to find a problem's source. Aircraft mechanics focus on one (or more) of a plane's eight key parts:

• Wings: Provide lift to keep the plane from becoming a huge lawn dart. Store fuel, too!
• Flaps: Help slow down the plane because airplanes don't have brakes.
• De-icing system: Removes ice from aircraft that's too big for a window scraper.
• Fuel pressure and pumps: Sends fuel to the engine so it doesn't sputter and die.
• Rudder/aileron: Turns the aircraft because going in a straight line is BORING.
• Landing gear—fixed or undercarriage: Wheels... so you don't have to land on bare metal.
• Power plant/engine: It satisfies the airplane's (and pilot's) need for speed.
• Propeller: Huge eggbeater that drives the airplane through the sky.
• Fuel delivery system: Pumps and lines that send fuel to the thirsty engine(s).
• Cooling system: Keeps the engine from overheating.
• Navigation systems: Elaborate electronic roadmap of the sky...no gas stations up there.
• Internal electronics controls: Gizmos and gadgets that keep the airplane operating.
• Battery: Used for engine starts because flipping the prop is so old school.
• Backup systems: Keep you flying because there are no tow trucks in the sky.
• Monitoring systems: Gauges and alarms to warn you of impending disaster.
• Radio/communication systems: So you can communicate with the F-16 that's about to use you for target practice.

So there are a lot of systems, right? Try multiplying those numbers by the 230,801 aircraft registered in 2010. Now consider that every plane has a designated TBO, or time between operations. Is your calculator giving you that "E" yet?

So after every 50 hours of flight time, a pilot must get the plane inspected by a qualified aircraft mechanic, which should begin to give you the idea that aircraft mechanics are a really important part of the equation. An aircraft mechanic provides the last line of defense against an in-flight malfunction and potential disaster. Seriously, this isn't like your car loses oil pressure and you can coast to the side of the road and call the auto club. If an airplane loses engine oil pressure, that engine is toast. The pilot had better have somewhere picked out to land REALLY FAST, or he'll be the jam on that toast.

That's our jam.

Okay, so aircraft mechanics service the systems that keep the airplane flying. Let's say you hand-tighten some engine bolts, inspect them, and button up the engine so the plane can get out the door. Should be good enough, right? No. If you approach an aircraft mechanic job with that attitude, your odds of contributing to a mechanical failure accident go through the roof. You must adjust each bolt and screw to its correct tolerance. In some cases, several screws must be aligned in identical positions. Isn't this level of precaution overkill, you ask? Consider the potential consequences of carelessly aligned engine bolts: The plane's in-flight engine vibrations can eventually dislodge the bolts from the engine mounts. If the bolts come off the engine, what's holding it in place? Nothing. Now you've got a wildly vibrating engine loose in the engine compartment, making the plane dangerously unbalanced and likely leading to a crash. People may die. And all because you couldn't be bothered to spend a few extra minutes.

Or maybe that type of slacker mechanic turns your stomach. You couldn't imagine yourself operating that way. You approach every mechanical job with a sense of pride and attention to detail. You value your tools way more than having the hottest new truck or fastest sports car, and your most treasured possession is your double-decker rolling toolbox. You've organized your tools so you can grab the correct one at a moment's notice; you refuse to waste time rummaging through untidy piles of wrenches and ratchets. You haven't found anything you can't fix, and you know you can kick butt in the aircraft maintenance world, too.

If you think mechanical aptitude alone will make you an aircraft mechanic, you need to fast-forward to the 21st century. Yes, you'll need to learn how to maintain and repair aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't want unqualified backyard mechanics working on civilian aircraft, whether the planes are small private puddle jumpers or commercial aircraft. You need to develop your aircraft maintenance and repair skills, along with a general familiarity with electrical systems and electronics, in some approved fashion. We'll talk about how you get approved in a bit.

Let's say you've gotten hired on at an aircraft maintenance shop. What kind of airplanes will you work on? Depending on your employer, you may be working on single- and twin-engine private aircraft or passenger and/or cargo planes operated by major carriers. If you land at a regional airport, you might service both private planes and commuter aircraft during any given week. Many general aviation airports host for-profit maintenance businesses that service any airplane that comes through the door. In contrast, major airline maintenance shops limit their business to company-operated aircraft.

Let's also assume you're an extremely competent aircraft mechanic. You've even been called a mechanical wizard, and you can fix complicated problems with one hand tied behind your back. (Now we’re really glad you’re not flying planes.) You must be able to clearly communicate the details to your Director of Maintenance. Who is this dude? Ideally, the DOM is an experienced mechanic who has the professional credentials and maintenance experience to ensure the shop operates efficiently. He also should have the administrative and diplomatic skills to wade through all the BS he will encounter from the shop owner (and the abuse he may encounter from the shop's customers).

The DOM reports to the maintenance shop owner. And what does the shop owner do? Most importantly, he writes the checks that keep the shop operating (including your paycheck). He oversees administrative functions such as employment law and tax compliance, and interfaces with the FAA. The shop owner is also highly influenced by his insurance company, which issues policy guidelines for maintenance shop operations. Picture a high wire juggling act: The hapless juggler (a.k.a. maintenance shop owner) struggles to keep his balance and keep all the balls in the air. Meanwhile, the ringmaster (his insurer) keeps adding new balls and changing the rules the juggler must follow. Won’t someone sic a tiger on that jerk?

Speaking of insurance, you'll indirectly encounter that necessary evil in your aircraft maintenance job. You must document every aircraft maintenance or repair job in the aircraft's maintenance logbook. You must use clear, concise English so anyone reading your entries will understand what you did. Great, more paperwork. Why is this stuff so important? The owner must be able to document all his aircraft maintenance and repair work. This information will help track maintenance problems and will provide a good paper trail if/when the aircraft is sold. Even more importantly, the maintenance logbook provides indisputable records on prior maintenance should the aircraft be involved in a crash. The FAA and the insurance company will trace the aircraft's maintenance records to help assign blame for the accident.

On occasion, your Director of Maintenance may ask you to brief your customers about their aircraft's maintenance. Remember that you represent your company during these conversations. Don't wear a smelly, three-day-old, wrinkled uniform. Don't use language more appropriate for the men's room or neighborhood bar. Remember that your interactions with customers may influence your ability to get future raises and/or promotions.

So you think you've got this mechanical stuff down pretty well. After all, once you've seen the inner workings of one plane, you can pretty well figure out what the next one will look like, right? Remember that modern aircraft get more sophisticated every year. Computer-controlled systems are becoming increasingly common, and aircraft mechanics should become familiar with these systems' general operation. Although avionics technicians often troubleshoot and repair this delicate equipment, a competent generalist mechanic should be able to install and/or replace the electronics as needed. You must also be capable of comprehending the hundreds of pages of Federal Aviation Administration regulations that govern aircraft maintenance. Be forewarned—there may not be as many pictures as you would like.

Okay, so you've started your aircraft mechanic career with a go-fer job at a small regional airport maintenance shop. You began by sweeping the floor, graduated to oil changes and washing planes, and now you're learning how to troubleshoot common maintenance problems. You've acquired some confidence in your skills, and your DOM has given you kudos on your work ethic. After a couple of years, you're starting to champ at the bit for a bigger horse to ride. How can you move up the food chain?

Well, you have several options in front of you. You can accrue enough time and pass the certification exam to obtain your Inspector's Authorization, which gives you the credentials to open your own maintenance shop or to angle for a promotion within your current work setting. You can also earn a Bachelor's Degree in Aviation Maintenance (or a related field), and position yourself for a management slot. Either of those titles may qualify you to teach at an aviation technology trade school. There, if you find a student you especially relate to, you can…take them under your wing.

Sounds like a pretty promising career, right? You get to work on some cool airplanes, maybe meet some famous pilots, and get an occasional ticket to the air show? Well, remember there are pros and cons to every job. You might be lucky enough to land at a maintenance shop that only operates a day shift. You're rarely asked to work overtime and your evenings and weekends are your own. On the other hand, you may get hired at a 24/7 shop with a rotating shift schedule. You will be expected to work every shift to which you are assigned; your supervisor won't want to hear why you can't make it to work. "My dog ate my socket wrench" isn’t really going to fly here. Neither is "I partied too much last night—can't make it in today." You’re in the real world now. Your DOM and your coworkers are depending on you to pull your weight; if you don't show up, it impacts them. Pilots (and indirectly, passengers) are relying on you, too. They are trusting you as their last line of defense. Their lives are in your hands—every day.

Although usually they’ll need your help to fly.

Speaking of reality, there's one part of the aviation industry no one wants to discuss, but every pilot must face it. "We're at 38,000 feet in smooth air on autopilot. We've got 187 people aboard, including a slew of kids going to see Gramma for Christmas." Suddenly, a thunkkathunk sound that makes the pilot's stomach churn. He fights to control the wheezing, shaking aircraft that's suddenly heading downward. Horrified, he looks out the window to find the left engine has fallen off. This shouldn't be happening—engines shouldn't just fall off in midair. He prays he can land the beast that has just become a huge, unbalanced glider.

So how does something so unexpectedly horrifying happen? The aircraft mechanic who did the plane's last inspection didn't bother to double-check the maintenance rules guide —instead he went off to have another cigarette and complain about his union pension contract. If that pilot survives, he's coming after the mechanic—that slacker who almost killed the pilot and 187 innocent passengers who placed their trust in that guy.

Other aircraft accidents stem from pilot medical emergencies that render them unable to control the aircraft. Severe weather often creates hazardous flying conditions, and pilots make aircraft handling errors that put them and the plane in jeopardy. Sometimes, pilots are able to land with minor injuries and/or repairable aircraft damage. Sometimes, they crash and are killed, often taking others with them. And sometimes…there are snakes on the plane. And we don’t mean lawyers.

Enter the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB. This government agency investigates ANY incident—whether it's a malfunctioning piece of electronic equipment like a distance measuring tool…all the way to a smoldering hole in the ground with suitcase contents scattered for miles…. The NTSB wants to know how a routine domestic flight, on an aircraft with no previous maintenance problems, turned into this unimaginable tragedy. The NTSB will examine the aircraft as completely as possible, and will ask—no, demand—to see the plane's maintenance logs. They will sift through the entries with a fine-toothed comb to get the answers they need. If they find the crash resulted from sloppy maintenance work, the inspectors will identify the mechanic(s) who performed those jobs. It is not uncommon for mechanics to face legal and/or criminal consequences for their negligence. You can’t just lean your screwdriver against the wall next to another mechanic, point, and say, "He did it!"

Beyond the potential loss of your license and possible prison time, understand that a careless mechanic's slipshod work can forever change the destinies of pilots, passengers, and families. Decide if you're willing to take that risk. Keep in mind that there are some very nice families out there; they’re not all like that group of bozos who live next door.

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