The Forgotten Mechanic
Here’s today’s riddle: Name something that all pilots need and use all the time, often don’t know by name, and depend on completely for the safety of every flight. The answer isn’t obvious, and neither is this person, who frequently remains totally hidden at your local flying school or airport. Need a clue? How about tools, grease and safety wire? I’m speaking of your local aviation mechanic.
Some pilots still think an A&P is a supermarket, not the highly-trained airframe and powerplant mechanic who works on their airplane. Few know the education, effort, endurance, persistence, and skill required to obtain an A&P license. There are those who believe that becoming a licensed aviation mechanic is merely a matter of strapping on a tool belt, showing up at the local FAA office then doing a few dazzling moves with a box wrench. These are the same people who believe that Voltaire invented electricity. It just ain’t so.
The mechanic is one of aviation safety’s most vital components, yet he or she is also the least visible and least recognized part of the safety equation. The irony deepens further when you consider that the aviation mechanic actually needs more hour-for-hour, hands-on experience than an applicant for an airline transport certificate (ATP).
Here are the facts. The FARs require between 1,900 and 2,300 hours of hands-on mechanic experience to be eligible for an A&P certificate. That’s about 400 to 800 hours more than what’s required for the ATP. Now there’s a big difference between those two ratings, but the comparison is interesting. In many cases, an A&P student spends his or her time under the supervision of a senior mechanic. General aviation pilots, on the other hand, often don’t have the luxury of apprenticing themselves to more experienced aviators. We learn mostly on our own, which may be noble, but certainly isn’t conducive to rapid and thorough learning. A&P mechanics can’t afford to learn entirely on their own because we share the risks of their learning curve. In a sense, an aviation mechanic is like an intern or resident physician, who learns under close supervision. I think this is a good thing for everyone and certainly produces a highly trained person.
Along with the hands-on experience, an A&P applicant must also take an oral and practical test. A knowledge exam is also required. You can bet that those exams questions aren’t necessarily easy, either. I’m pretty certain the exam doesn’t contain lightweight questions such as, “Explain the difference between a wrench and a ranch,”
or, “Is it wise to wear a propeller hat with a tool belt?”
All of the education and training earns an A&P the right to work long hours around cranky and sometimes dangerous components (including the pilot-owners), usually in a cold, drafty hangar. Oh yes, it also gets them the right to live with the legal and moral responsibility for the mechanical safety of every flight of every airplane they touch, because if something goes wrong mechanically, you know the FAA will be talking to the mechanic who last worked on the aircraft.
I’m privileged to know many competent and capable mechanics, several of whom work on my airplane. I trust them and their associates implicitly. Were it not for the confidence I have in their abilities I probably wouldn’t fly without first lighting candles, twirling my Pope-soap-on-a-rope, and setting up a little nativity scene in the cockpit. Good mechanics are worth their weight in aviation gasoline (at its current Southern California price).
When I first began instructing, I often thought a great deal about the people who serviced the airplanes I flew. I especially thought about them when operating over a dark body of water, beyond gliding distance of solid surfaces, where my imagination was my copilot (which is like having a terrorist in the right seat). On occasion, I’d begin to wonder if I’d actually heard Bob the mechanic mention something about a 12 step program, or if he’d said he was half moved into a house or completely moved into a halfway house.
I don’t spend much time worrying about the A&Ps who twist wrenches now. That’s testimony to the reliability of both modern planes and those who service them. There’s hardly a reason to think about your mechanic on most flights when the airplane’s solids, liquids and gases are behaving properly, as they usually do. You almost get the impression that an A&P’s transparency is silent testimony to his or her competence.
It’s as if you could say to someone, “Who’s your mechanic?” and have the person reply, “Heck, I don’t know his name.”
To which you’d enthusiastically respond by saying, “That’s just the kind of fellow I’m looking for.” Hopefully, this fellow does have a name and isn’t withholding it because he’s in the witness protection program.
Of course, I jest, but you get the point, right?
On the other hand, if you were on approach and saw your newly overhauled propeller fly off into the distance, becoming number one to land, you’d probably call out your mechanic’s name (perhaps one of several you use when important things fly off your machine).
“Bob! Darn it! I knew you were in a halfway house!”
Now you’d be thinking about your mechanic a lot on every flight, wouldn’t you?
The fact is, as long the machine runs well we’re not inclined to think about the man or woman behind the wrench. That’s all the more reason to make sure your mechanics know that you appreciate the service they perform. You might even consider sending a “thank you” after your airplane is next serviced. The benefits are twofold. First, the mechanic will really appreciate it. Second, you will help him test his triple bypass, because few pilots are ever-thoughtful enough to send their mechanic a note like this. He’ll surely be shocked.
Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that all mechanics are wunderkinds. That just isn’t so. Like pilots, controllers, and FAA personnel, there are always a few mechanics who give all the other wrenches in the box a bad name. For instance, you know you have a bad mechanic when he suggests solving your electrical problem by unhooking the spinner and attaching a new airplane to it. Any suggestion that the air in your tires needs rotating every month is an eyebrow-raiser in my book, especially if the recommending mechanic wears a tool belt with a propeller hat. Finally, despite holding an A&P certificate, some mechanics just aren’t as mechanical as you’d like them to be. They may be able to twirl a wrench the way a drum major can spin a baton, but their diagnostic logic suggests the almost total absence of a left brain. Having a pan doesn’t make you a cook, and I proved that. On my first cooking attempt, I had to stand in the front yard and yell at the fire trucks, “Go away, it’s only oatmeal.”
Having a good mechanic is the key to flying safely and comfortably. I can’t think of anything else that would make me feel a bit more relaxed when flying IFR at night over the mountains than knowing that a skilled professional took pride in working on my airplane. Making sure these folks know how much we appreciate them, despite the transparency with which they work, is very important. The following poem by an unknown author best expresses these feelings.