Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It Was A Bad Day - a guest post by Franco A

It was bad, very bad.

We found ourselves in San Diego on a rainy night in a post 9/11 world at a pre-9/11 airport.

We had to deal with Army guards with weapons just to get our visitor badges. The Ops agent who was escorting us had to talk about surfing on his cell phone instead of watching us like he was supposed to. We had the minimal amount of parts to fix the maximum amount of airplane. Add to that we were both on our 5th shifts (obviously this was a long time ago-Goat) and it should be enough to write a horror novel, but this was the good part.

We managed to fix the airplane without being shot by the Army and in reward, the Ops surfer dude called his boss and told him that we refused to spend the night in their Ops office and that we insisted that they get us some hotel rooms. They got us some rooms all right. Rooms at Motel Hell!

The Ops Surfer Dude gave us a Taxi Voucher and the address to the hotel to the taxi driver. We drove, and it started to rain, and we drove, and it rained very hard, and we drove some more. After about 25 minutes I began to think we were either being given a room out of state or we had been kidnapped and we were going to be shipped to Somalia to be pirates.

Well, we got there and the cab driver dumped us off in the rain in the front of a place that was straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. There was even a strip club across the street and a tow yard next door. We had to walk a block in the rain just to find a 7-11, No decent restaurant could possibly be in this part of town.

The rooms they provided us had a fantastic view of the tow trucks next door and mine had the crisp freshness of nicotine in the air! The company did us right this trip. Right as in right up the %@&%*@! I thought that I could blow the smell away by turning on the air conditioner mounted in the window, but when I turned it on it spat particles of who knows what into my face and the air from it smelled like it smoked 4 packs a day too.

I went to the bathroom to wash off the nicotine that coated my face. I was scared to use the soap as I didn't know if someone had done "The Toothbrush" trick on it and it was dirtier than I could imagine. I dared the "it" and washed 4 pounds of nicotine off of myself and dried my face with the towel provided by the friendly people of Housekeeping.

Imagine that! It smelled like nicotine too!

I thought I had walked in to a hotel room, but I was actually in a box of Camel non-filtered cigarettes with plumbing! Wow! I thought this was only something that could happen in a John Candy/Steve Martin film. I knew one thing right then and there; DO NOT go barefoot in this room.

Well, we left the hotel the next morning to catch out flight back to OAK and as we were passing through Ops I really wanted to show my appreciation to Ops Surfer Dude and his boss by giving them a big kick in the a$$ for the great room and lung cancer that I probably acquired from sleeping there that night.

We were boarded and pushing back from the gate when it suddenly struck me that we never got our Rubio's Fish Tacos from the terminal restaurant. It was a mechanic's mission whenever he went to SAN to hit up Rubio's. All that I endured on this trip and now I would have to admit defeat to my fellow mechanics when I returned to the OAK-Town that Rubio's had not been visited.

Franco A.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On The Road Again

The Other day I had the opportunity to go on a road trip up to Sacramento to work on a broken plane. Me and the mechanic I went with got all the stuff together: parts for an engine bleed problem, tools, flashlights and batteries, and a full tank of gas for the Chevy pickup we use for our road trips. We got some cash for the toll on the bridge we have to cross and hurried to hit the road. Everything was going well for about 2 miles. Once we got on the highway we were in bumper to bumper traffic.

It takes about 2 hours to drive from Oakland to Sacramento on a normal day, however, we took about 3 hours and a few minutes to get there. There are mechanics in Sacramento but usually only one mechanic is there at a time and as such they require assistance when airplanes get grounded there. Sure one guy can handle the normal gate calls of the day and maybe an occasional tire change, maybe even a hydraulic pump change, but items like engine work or window changes require more than one mechanic.

Once we arrived we called the on shift mechanic and he escorted us to their shop. Coming from Oakland with all our space I was taken aback by the size of the maintenance office in Sacramento. I had been to Sacramento to work planes before but not since the company stationed four mechanics there. They have a small office but it has all the necessary equipment: refrigerator, computer, desk, phone, small TV, lockers, and a place to sit down. I would say it is about perfect for one guy at a time as is the norm there. The mechanic on duty was an old Oakland co-worker so we sat down and caught up on things, he explained the engine problem to us and we headed out to check out the plane. Before we could get to the door a call came over and he had to go check something out on another plane. We waited for him to come back and then got to the grounded airplane. While we were working on the plane something like four or five more calls came in that the on duty mechanic had to check out.

We tinkered and checked some stuff and eventually decided that one of the bleed air lines must be leaking. When we finally got around to removing the suspect line we closed up the cowls and got ready to take her out and high power run her. Well, gone are the days of simply hopping in the plane and taxiing to the run up hole to see if we had once more done our magic. First we had to go to the shop and fill out our taxi paperwork, printout the airport maps, fax the paperwork to maintenance control and do the hoky-poky. Of course this whole ordeal which should take about 20 minutes tops is made even longer by the incoming gate calls which our host had to attend to. It was crazy, it seemed like every time we were ready to go, another call would come over. This had to take almost an hour and to be fair it was right around terminating time and the crews wanted to discuss their issues with a mechanic.

We get to the plane and call the ramp over to pull the chocks and belt loader away so that we could taxi out. Amazing the rampers there are very polite and willing to work, a huge contrast to our rampers in Oakland. Our host was taxiing and I was on the radio. We went to the run-up hole and set our N1 tachs, ran her up to take off on the suspected engine and about 77-80% on the other. We did our checks, checked our checks, and rechecked that the checks we checked were checked (you mechanics out there know what I mean). Everything was fine. We taxi back to the remote spot and button her up, head back to the maintenance office.

As we are enjoying a refreshing drink the radio and phone start up again requiring the on duty mechanic to head out and get things handled. I tell you it was exhausting to watch him go out over and over again. We decided to bail while we had the chance or risk being sucked into the gravitational pull of the needy pilots in Sacramento that particular day. Small stations are cool but it seemed to me, at least that day, they keep you humping. Maybe it was a junior pilot day, but that's a subject for another time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Olympics Are Here

Well the Olympics are something like a week away and the whole world is gearing up for the various events. The hoopla and excitement is building as the attention of the world is focused on Canada. You may think that this has little to do with aircraft maintenance but we too have an Olympic history (at least we do at Southwest Airlines).

Years ago we had what we called the Maintenance Olympics. The Maintenance Olympics were held in Dallas (I believe). Each maintenance station could send a team of four or five mechanics, one stock clerk, and one inspector. There were different events: Tire change, Coalesor bag replacement, passenger seat cover change, and maybe one I am forgetting. The winning team would have the best time in each event. For example the tire change would start with a stock clerk bringing a tire to the mechanics, the mechanics jacking and changing the tire, the inspector making sure that all is legal and no short cuts are taken. All the events are timed and all the work has to be complete.

Now, people from other airlines may not understand all this, and I will admit the culture at SWA is different than most companies. The Maintenance Olympics may seem like a complete waste of time and money to outsiders. I will also admit that SWA has cancelled the Maintenance Olympics indefinitely for exactly those reasons. What is amazing is how the competition helped with team cohesion. After the team was selected others were encouraged to go and root their fellow mechanics on to victory. The Maintenance Olympics encouraged a healthy competitive spirit among the maintenance stations and was a boost in team work within the different maintenance stations.

When the economy comes back around I hope that the Maintenance Olympics can be re-instated. The opportunities for team work building within a company a few and far between. Sure we mechanics work well as a team within our separate stations but this event helped build COMPANY WIDE teamwork and teamwork is the only thing that's going to bring us through this crappy economy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

To Troubleshoot Or Load The Shotgun!!

There are times when working Line Maintenance that problems with airplanes are real apparent. These tomes do not require much troubleshooting. Actually a great deal of what we do as Line Mechanics is troubleshoot. We at SWA run things differently than most places in that we utilize most of our airplanes and have very few spares. In fact not too long ago we had no spare aircraft which required us as mechanics to fix grounded planes quickly. Unlike the picture above the majority of issues that airplanes have need to be rooted out via troubleshooting. As such a good troubleshooter is usually a good mechanic and vise-versa.

Now all that said there are also times when you "Load the shells into the shotgun". When we say this we mean that we take all the parts that could be causing a problem with us out to the plane and start changing them until the problem is fixed. A good example of this for us are Engine Bleed Air issues. We at SWA have a test box that is supposed too tell us which valve or regulator is at fault. The problem is that our test box is not very reliable and often leads us astray. I know that the "Shotgun Method" is a more costly method but for issues like Bleed Air it is the method I prefer. When the boss and OPS are breathing down your throat for a time that the plane will be fixed you simply do not have time to fiddle around with a busted test box.

Last night I worked another problem that called for just changing the part and seeing what happened. This time it was for a totally different reason. My plane had a Fuel Boost Pump inop and on MEL. This particular boost pump was a center pump and on the 737-700 series aircraft to correctly change and ops check the center boost pump you have to put at least 10 thousand pounds of fuel into the center tank. In a situation like this I figured I could fill up the tank, troubleshoot, and try to fix, or I could change the pump and low pressure switch and then fill the tank and do the ops check. Since the pump and switch are really the only things in the system excepting a wire problem its safe to change them as they are most likely to break. Saves time, saves me energy. By the way it fixed the problem.

As most Line Mechanics I see the value of good troubleshooting. We spend a lot of energy with BITE books and in the Maintenance Manual to fine tune and hone these skills but there are times when you have to go old school and pull out the shells for the shotgun.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"That Guy"

This post is mainly for those of you who are thinking of getting into this profession. I'm going to call them "That Guy" posts. This particular post is going to be about that guy you should try to avoid being.
At every stop in my maintenance career there has been "That Guy". That guy who feels the need to stand over you while you work and tell you how what you are doing is wrong. That guy who always has a better or quicker way to do the job and can't figure out why you won't do it his way.
The thing about "That Guy" is that he usually only comes around after you have begun or after you have finished the job at hand. "That Guy" usually is spouting his knowledge when a roomful of people can hear it to attest to his greatness. "That Guy" is often the last to help and the first to have problems doing even the simplest tasks. In fact "That Guy" is a legend in his own mind.
"That Guy" is in reality a guy who when you think about all his stories you figure out that you have never seen him do any of this stuff. "That Guy" a needs constant spotlight shone on him when in fact he does nothing noteworthy.
My own "That Guy" experience happened when I first started at SWA. I got hired in with another guy who had a lot of Line Maintenance experience, worked on several types of planes, at several different companies, doing things that sounded amazing to me. "That Guy" even knew two thirds of the mechanics at Oakland from previous employment. Me, on the other hand, having come out of hangar work and knowing nobody put "That Guy" on somewhat of a pedestal in my estimation. As it turned out "That Guy" is a big wind bag who does more talking and complaining than work. The thing is it took me about three years to realize this and by the time I did we at SWA had hired and in most cases fired a bunch of other "That Guys".
So when you start your career don't be "That Guy" who is boastful, pushy, and a know it all. Believe me things go a lot easier for you if you are open to advice, modest, and ask a lot of questions.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Forlorn Warrior

Picture copyright Radek Oneksiak Courtesy of