Sunday, February 20, 2011

"WOW It's Cold Up Here!"

I have had the unique opportunity to spend a bit of time up in Anchorage Alaska while my wife is stationed up there. As you can imagine it's pretty cold up there and I got to thinking about all the different weather scenarios that I have had to deal with as an aircraft mechanic and indeed all the mechanics around the states or even the world have to deal with. I will start with myself:

It is true that I grew up in NYC and it does snow there, but I have never had to do any maintenance work in the snow. The bulk of my professional aircraft maintenance career has been with SWA in Oakland California. While some of you are saying that it must be nice to work in the Bay Area as far as weather goes, and it is-most of the time! For those of us who work there know that it is very often wet and cold in the Bay Area. We spend a lot of time in our rain suits. We battle the fog and rain on a weekly basis pretty much all year round. When I first got to SWA all we had were the old school banana yellow rain coats and pants. They were good as long as you stood still but any movement would allow water to find the numerous gaps in the coat. The pants would last about a week before ripping and we all had tape on our pants. As you know it's hard to get anything done by standing still so by the end of the shift you were going to be wet.

I clearly remember Dawg going out nice and dry to change a wing tip nav light and coming back inside about 40 minutes later soaked! Some one asked why he didn't ask for help if he was getting soaked and he simply said "once you become one with the rain you hardly notice it". That was very true back in those days, if it was raining out you knew you were going to get wet. The old yellow suits were just not that good. A few years later one of our foreman, I'll call him Tahoe, ordered us new rain suits that were light weight, breathable and very high quality. The wrists and ankle openings could be cinched closed, they zipped up tight and the hoods had bands that could also be cinched closed. All of a sudden it was almost pleasurable to work out in the rain again. I still have my original Tahoe rain suit and it still works fine.

Now a days guys (smart guys) go out and buy some real high quality rain gear at places like REI. The rain gear to us Oakland mechs is what I would say is an essential piece of equipment. We do a lot of road trips and before we go often check the weather to see if it is raining at the station we are headed to. I think that today's rain gear is so compact and light weight you should always take it with you on any road trip. Put an extra set in your fly away bag since its hard to tell when you may need them. One time Tuna and I went to San Diego to work an engine issue and since it was summer and we were headed to SD we took no rain gear. You know where I am going with this and of course while we were working a thunderstorm opened up on us. While we were relatively dry under the cowling our tools were soaked. If I had a set of rain gear I could have wrapped my stuff up and saved me a long weekend of cleaning and drying my tools and tool bag.

Of course we also to road trips to SD and other southern California cities where it gets very hot. I have been to Burbank when it is over a hundred degrees out and it is pretty much miserable. The temp on the ramp is usually a few degrees hotter that the air temp so anything over 100 sucks. All I can say for that is to drink plenty of water. I personally  do not like to wear the uniform shorts at work but I know that a lot of guys do. I have dropped too many hot parts and had too much hot liquid on me to expose my chicken legs to the type of dangers out there. Those poor guys working the line in Phoenix must have to endure some amazing temps at work.

I have had hail, rain, thundersorms, lightning storm, and even tornado warnings at work. If you think about it mechanics have to be ready for all weather scenarios. Unlike our pilot counterparts we actually have to go out and work on the planes in the snow, or rain. I'm sure that when a pilot reports to the Phoenix Line that there is a problem with a tire (or god forbid a brake) he does not think twice about it being 120 degrees outside. These Alaska mechanics have to not only work in the snow but what I have noticed is that the ground is not clear, the ground is covered in ice. When they open the cowling they are laying on ice, plane being jacked, the jack is on ice. It really is astounding to think about the mechanics working around the globe in all weather, on varied surface.

One more thing: SWA has made available to us a new type of rain suit. We can order it form our uniform supplier. The thing is very nice and seems to work great but has a very major design flaw. If you compare the Tahoe rain suit with the new SWA suit they look very similar. One of the few differences is that the SWA suit has a nice big flap in the back to allow your body to breath better and not get too hot while you are wearing it. A few weeks ago while it was raining one of the mechanics and I were closing an engine cowl and of course we had to lay down on the wet ground in the puddles that always seem to be directly under the engines. We both laid down and about three seconds later he jumped up cussing. That nice big flap had turned into a nice big scoop and his whole back was wet! Don't forget that we have to lay down in these suits too!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My High School: Aviation High School NY

This summer I will be on my way back to NYC to attend the 75th Anniversary of the founding of Aviation High School. The school is celebrating by having a banquet and an all year reunion. For those of you not familiar with the Aviation High School in New York it is the oldest (I believe) operating high school in the country dedicated to teaching its students the art  of aviation maintenance. The graduates of Aviation High School are a very proud bunch and I hope to see a good number of them there that evening.

In NYC there are several specialty high schools like Aviation High. There is the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, made famous by the movie/tv show Fame. There is the Bronx High School of Science, Automotive High, Transit High, and several other vocational type schools available to NYC 8th graders. It is a system that I wish other major cities would use as it gives kids a leg up on their career paths-post high school. I know that most of the guys I work with had to pay for their A&P licences and are shocked to hear that I got mine for free from high school.

When I was an 8th grader they handed us this book which had all the specialty school listed in it. I took it home to check it out since I really had not thought about going to any high school other than my local one. I thumbed through it and finally saw Aviation High School. I liked the idea so I went to talk to my parents about it. My dad tells me that that was the school he went to!! I did not know. As with a lot of these types of schools I had to go and take a test to get in so on the right day I went down there and did the test, waited a few days and was accepted into Aviation High School, Long Island City, NY.

The first day there was an eye opener! Not only did we have a full high school curriculum, we also had to do shop classes to learn all the aspects of aircraft maintenance. This translated into the longest school day in the NYC School System. A lot of us had "zero period" at like 6:50am (I'm not sure if that's right but it was early!) and didn't get done with classes until 3:40pm. Me personally, since I lived way up in the North Bronx, I had to leave my building by 5:30am to be able to make it to school by 7:00am. Since the school was training us for a federal licence we had to have a certain number of hours of training. This meant that the school had less holidays and half days than other schools and when it snowed and other schools were shut down ours was open!

These things were all sort of PITA (Pain In The Ass) at the time but made for a fiercely unique and proud bunch of students. We worked hard because it was hard work, just to attend that school.

The pride you felt as a 14 year old when you finished your first project in your first shop class was amazing. I started out in Wood  Shop working on a jig for wing rib. A simple board with blocks attached that were used to make the ribs that create wings on older airplanes. When I was done and finally got my last signature from my shop teacher I was so proud of myself. I made something that was made to a standard that would hold up in any real world application, had learned about how to use tools, how to form wood, how to fasten wood and the kids that went to my local high school were just  learning the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Recip. Shop

Aviation High School has a hangar attached to it and by the time you were a Junior or Senior you were actually working on the airplanes that we had in the hangar, actual real live airplanes! When Senior year can around you had learned, Wood, Dope and Fabric, Sheet Metal, Electricity, Avionics, Carburation, Reciprocating Engines, Turbine Engines, Propellers, and a bunch more that I am sure that I am forgetting. As a Senior you attended shop for 3 or 4 hours a day! Every minute of it was like heaven to me. I stumbled like all teenagers do, had to take a class over (electricity, which I am strangely good at as a practicing A&P mechanic) made some life long friends and most importantly found out what I was good at and passionate about at a very early age. Aviation High School has steered the direction of my whole life.

Turbine shop

I remember when I became a Junior and really decided that I was going for the A&P licence. I got the FAA Test Prep book and read it over and over again for the next two years! The pages were literally falling out of the book by the time my test date came, but I knew that thing inside and out. I passed and was able to graduate with both my Airframe and Powerplant Licenses. I made friendships that have lasted up to this day, I learned how to use tools (more important that I thought it was), I learned that hard work is rewarded, I learned how to make things (another thing that is very important), I learned that graduating from a school like ours is very unique and not all that easy, and I learned about my love for airplanes. That love has seen me through a lot of good times and a few bad times, that love has fed me and my family, clothed us and put a roof over our heads. The Aviation industry is not an easy place to work and the Airline Industry is and always will be a mess but God willing there will always be an Aviation High School at 4530 36th St. Long Island City, NY to help kids like me fulfill their dreams.

As a foot note I have met a lot of people while working in this industry. I attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after my time at Aviation High School and knew a lot of people from there as well. When you meet a fellow Aviation High School grad there is some thing about that person that is different than all the others. There is a little twinkle in the eye, a nod of the head, a way they walk, that lets you know they have shared an ordeal with you at such an important age in their life and the bond is there instantly. A few years ago (2003 or 2004) I went with my wife to an OBAP (Organisation of Black Aerospace Professionals) Convention in Phoenix AZ. While we were checking in at the hotel front desk there was an older guy standing next to me I do not recall if I mentioned Aviation High School or he simply saw my high school ring or what but he politely introduced himself and was a graduate of Aviation High School also, in something like 1952! We talked for a long while and he even gave me his email address. He still had that confidence and swagger of an Aviation High School grad.

Happy 75th Anniversary!!!! I hope to see a lot of you grads on June 9th 2011 for the dinner and school tour. Here is a link to a video tour of the 75 years of Aviation High School:

Thursday, February 3, 2011


You may not think of planning when you think of aircraft maintenance but a good mechanic is a good planner. Of course you can see that planning is involved when you are disassembling an item, in order to get it apart and back together again. When going to a gate call at work a good mechanic will try to bring with him or her all the parts or tools needed. Sometimes this is easier said than done due to the intentionally vague descriptions of problems that some pilots report.

With proper planning the evenng clouds will be the most dramatic part of your day

The worse gate calls to deal with are what we call "cockpit chats". When a crew calls you up to the plane to chat it can mean anything. Hard to plan for any and every eventuality so I usually just bring my small tool pouch up with me in case it is something I can fix real quick. I have had cockpit chats to fix everything from a missing cup holder in the flight deck to aircraft damage. I can understand being discreet in some cases but a few (a lot) of the crews take this a little too far. We mechanics only have about 20 minutes to trouble shoot and fix problems and playing the guessing game slows that down. I have had crews tell me that they do not like to transmit the problems they are having over the radio because "they" might be listening. Who "they" are is unclear to me. The FAA has a lot more to do than listen in on our OPS frequency to see if the pilots are using the correct radio protocol. Back in the day people used to use radio scanners to listen in on airport traffic but even that got boring real quick, so I think that it is safe Mr. or Ms. Pilot.

When I passed probation all those years ago and started to evaluate the newer guys on their performance while they were on probation I realized how important being a good planner is. My boss at the time was a guy I will call Tator. Tator would watch the new guys work. He often remarked how this was that guys third or forth trip back from the plane to get parts or something like that. His concern was simple: if you are spending all night running back and forth to stores you are taking longer than needed to finish your jet. Back then we had fewer people at night so every mechanic had to do more than one plane a night just so we could make launch in the morning.

When I terminate a plane I write everything down that I find wrong and I put the discrepancies on the big board where our planes are listed for the night. This used to be common practice but not too much anymore. I sometimes get flack from the mid night shift guys for writing all these things that I found wrong on their plans onto the board. This is confusing to me because I saved them a trip by telling them what they need before they get out to plane and have to turn around to get it.

It is simple we have to get our planes out on time. Unfortunately it is part of our job to ensure on time departures for our customers. I will be the first to say that if you as a mechanic have to take a delay in order to properly fix a jet than go right ahead, safety first. Planning and being a good planner will, however minimize those delays.

When a call comes in OR when you get your assignment for midnight shift think to yourself: what am I going to need to bring with me in order to fix this plane? When a call comes in about a coffee maker-bring a coffee maker. I know that 9 times out of 10 we can fix the original coffee maker but when that one time comes up it is a lot easier and quicker to change one out if it is with you or at least on your golf cart waiting for ya. We have a guy at work who never brings things with him to his gate calls and he annoys everyone by going out and ALWAYS calling for someone to bring him parts. Don't be that guy!!