I have been an aircraft/helicopter mechanic for more than 45 years and I would say that I was a mechanic long before then. While growing up, I started wrenching on lawn mowers in the summer to make extra money. Later on I would work on my motorcycles and cars that I bought with my lawn mowing money. I am not, by nature, a very neat and organized person. You can ask my wife. I have had to make a conscious effort my whole career to keep a clean workspace once I got focused on turning wrenches.
I can’t tell you how many times I have started tuning or tweaking on my vehicles in the driveway just to find myself surrounded by scattered parts, tools, jacks and even a complete engine block now and then. Just about the time I would realize what I had done, my dad would come home from work and try to get into the driveway. Let’s just say that he never used the exact phrase, “cleanliness is next to godliness.” His words were stronger and more “colorful.” (You get the picture.) After being told that I had 10 minutes to get my vehicle out of “his” driveway, my only option was to pile all of my parts, tools, jacks and even a complete engine block into the inside of my car and relocate it to a less-than-desirable location to put it back together. I am still amazed at how many parts and tools could be lost in that short period of time. I thought I would have no problem identifying and putting the parts back on in the right order and in the right locations. Boy, was I wrong. Where did all of the extra parts come from and where did my tools go? It was a mess and took twice as long to get running. I guess I didn’t really need those extra parts anyway.
I joined the Navy when I was 18 and that is where I learned the benefits of keeping a tidy ship. I did not learn this overnight. There were many times while working on my aircraft that I had to run back to my shop to get some other tools that were needed. I thought, “I’ll run up to the shop real quick and grab them,” only to come back and find that the aircraft was moved to a different location on the ship. All of the parts and tools were stuffed in the aircraft by people who had no concern for the work I was doing. It wasn’t their problem. Hardware and tools got lost. I learned quickly to “bag and tag” my parts and hardware and secure them so that things would not get lost or forgotten.
As I said before, this does not come naturally to me. I have to work at it. I have been a chief inspector for about 15 years and I am not really working out on the floor anymore like I used to. I have retired my tool box to the very back room where we work on our “toys,” and I guess it has gotten out of control. Here is one of our tool boxes. It’s not pretty.
I’m not proud of it but it is not allowed to work on aircraft on the repair station floor. The point I am getting at is this: you need to take good care of your tools. Aircraft/helicopter mechanic is the only profession that I can think of that requires you to supply all of your own tools just to get a job. I know that the airlines supply tools for the mechanics who work on the big jets but youhave to spend thousands of dollars of your own money just to work on customers’/company aircraft. Aviation mechanics aren’t the highest-paid professionals in the industry. Pilots, maybe, have to supply their own headsets, but that’s about it. Why is this? For this reason, I don’t have a problem when I see my mechanics wiping off their tools and placing them neatly back in their tool boxes. I’m happy when I see them sweeping around the aircraft in the middle of the day or organizing the cowling racks. As a company, we have had to limit the time that my mechanics spend on the tool trucks that come around, but I know they are buying tools to make their jobs more efficient and the company more profitable. I’m fine with this. Our company supplies many of the calibrated tools or special OEM tools and I appreciate my team members when they take the time to put them back in the tool room. We have a lot of money invested in these tools. Some places require a tool control program and this is coming someday for the rest of the industry. It’s not a bad thing. On the top of the next column is Brian Garbe, one of my team members who takes pride in his tools. I have many more professionals just like him.
Our work space/area is a direct reflection of what is going on in our minds. I didn’t know this until I went back to college years ago and took some psychology courses. When we are working in a total mess and have parts and tools scattered around us, our mind is scattered and unorganized as well. Only when we start to clean and organize our workspace does our mind start to focus more efficiently.
I’ve stood and watched my mechanics walk around a work stand or some other object a dozen times before I suggested they move it out of their way. Sometimes they would look at me and grin and just say, “oh, yeah, duh.” I would tell them to just take a few minutes to straighten things up and get one job out of the way before starting on other jobs. Have you ever tried working in a pile of trash, tripping over hoses and drop cords with obstacles all around you? It will wear you out. Whether we work in the field or in a repair station, we need to keep our work space organized and clean up after ourselves. We don’t have to wait until the end of the shift to do it. This is what I like to see.
One other problem that we have dealt with in our hangar is work orders, parts tags, manuals, drawings or other papers blowing away when someone opens the hangar doors. If we work in a windy environment, we need to protect our paperwork from that environment. If we walk away to go to the parts department or on a break, we should secure anything that could blow away or fall over if someone opens a door. Cowlings and panels are vulnerable to this and there is no profit in doing warranty repairs on hangar rash. I am always amazed when I see a mechanic laying cowlings and parts around the hangar floor with no regard for their value. I’ve asked them how they would treat a $100,000 car or truck if they were working on it. Why can’t they have the same respect for a $1,000,000 helicopter? It’s something we need to think about.
I’d like to get serious for a moment and relate a story that happened to me about 25 years ago. I was the lead mechanic in a repair station and we had worked on a Bell Jet Ranger for about a week and a half. We changed a turbine, a main transmission and numerous other components and we were finishing up and returning the aircraft to service on a Friday afternoon. We were all in a hurry to get it done so that we could get the weekend off. We finished up the paperwork and started to clean up the hangar while the aircraft was out flying the ops check flight. I was going to work a little late that day so I cleaned up my tool box better than usual, turned in the old parts and returned unused parts to the parts department. Before we left for the day, we did a good hangar cleanup and took off for the weekend. Our company usually had an early mechanic come in to launch a traffic helicopter, so it was not unusual for people to be in the hangar when I came in that Monday morning. I immediately had the feeling that something was wrong and Jeff confirmed it. The aircraft we released on Friday had a flight Sunday night but did not return. As the sun came up and all of the other employees came in, the aircraft was located and our suspicions were confirmed. The helicopter, with five souls on board, had crashed. There were no survivors.
We were all in shock. This turned out to be a high-profile event. We were not ready for the investigation that took place that day. The NTSB and the FAA descended upon us and immediately took over our facility. Our tool boxes were pulled into a quarantine area and we were not allowed to touch them. The paperwork we just finished on Friday was taken and we were each escorted into rooms for interviews with the FAA and NTSB inspectors. We were each then taken to our tool box with an inspector to go over its condition. Were there any tools missing that were left on the aircraft, or were there any parts there that should have been put on the aircraft? My tool box reflected me and I had to take ownership of it. To say that we were scared would be an understatement. We were not told anything. After a few days, we were told to go back to work like normal.
Things would not be normal in that hangar for a long time. After two years, the report came out that the NTSB determined the accident was caused by pilot error. This was no consolation to us, though, as the NTSB and FAA still made us feel like it was our fault. Even though our paperwork and procedures were in order and they couldn’t find anything mechanically wrong, they still believed that maintenance was the cause of the accident.
We were lucky. I shudder to think what it would have been like if we hadn’t done the extra clean up and I hadn’t spent that extra time cleaning up the paperwork and my tool box. How many nights had I gone home with tools and removed parts piled up on the top of my tool box? “I’m tired and I’ll take care of it in the morning.” “We signed off the logbook, but was the work order completed?” What if I had left my tool box like this on that fateful weekend?
Think about the aircraft that you just worked on and launched. What would you do if it crashed? Would you be ready to face the investigation that I faced? What does your workspace and your tool box look like right now? Will you be proud to show it to the inspectors who are going to put pressure on you? Or are you going to wish that you had put things away? I’ve never heard of anyone getting fired from a job for cleaning up their work area. Do it on company time and do it often. That’s what you get paid to do. I am proud of our mechanics because we get visitors to our facility all the time and I am never embarrassed to give a tour and show off our hangar to anyone. Remember, “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Terry L. Peed has been in Aviation for over 45 years and is a licensed A&P and IA. He is the chief inspector for Helicopter Specialties Inc., a certificated FAA repair station that performs heavy helicopter maintenance, completions with painting capabilities and avionics installations.