You probably didn’t expect to hear that from anybody in the helicopter maintenance industry, let alone see it in Helicopter Maintenancemagazine, did you? By now you have already been bombarded with warnings and told how dangerous this job is, and you might be scared to death to even touch a helicopter. This is not the message that I want to pass on to you. I am not telling you not to be vigilant. I am not suggesting that there is nothing dangerous about what we do. I am not hinting that you are working too hard and should take a break. I am trying to ease your mind and let you know that things are going to work out fine.
Last year, my favorite football team was faced with beginning the season with a 1-2 record going into the fourth week of the regular season. When everyone (fans included) put the pressure on the team to work harder and get busy and produce, a great leader told his team to step back and R.E.L.A.X. Things were going to work out fine. He knew his team had the potential and he knew they had the heart, it’s just that everyone was so paranoid and so worried about their jobs that they couldn’t focus on the real job that they needed to do. They were more worried about the score and winning the game and not getting cut than they were about making that perfect block or catching that uncatchable pass. Yes, I am talking about Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. They started the season 1-2 and after Rodgers’ little talk, the team finished the season at 12-4 with two postseason wins and a divisional championship. Not bad, huh?
Don’t get so worried about your job that you can’t actually do your job. Let me give you a few examples.
Johnny H. Mechanic just graduated from an A&P school located across the ramp from our company. He runs over to our shop with his fresh A&P license in his hand and says, “I have been watching your helicopters for two years and I want to be a helicopter mechanic.” We say, “OK, when can you start?” Johnny brings in his $20,000 tool box, full of tools that the tool salesman told him he was going to need before he could become a helicopter mechanic. I sigh and tell him to roll it over by my old Craftsman box and he can help us with the periodic inspections we are doing on a BK117 in the corner. Curiosity takes over and I can’t resist looking at his tools. I’ve been working in the industry for 45 years and I’ve never seen a finer toolbox. I had to ask him what a few of the tools were for and he just looked at me, perplexed. I guess he figured that I was just messing with him.
He laughed it off and asked me what I wanted him to do. I told him that I wanted him to lock up his toolbox and come with me to the tech library. I told him to sit down at the table, gave him a copy of the Repair Station Manual and told him to read it. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours and we will talk about it and answer any of your questions,” I said. When I came back and asked how he was doing, he said he needed more time. He had already scratched out three or four pages full of notes. I looked at his notes to see what kind of questions he had but there weren’t any questions. He was rewriting the manual because he said that he was having trouble memorizing it. I asked him if he had any questions on what he had read so far and he admitted to me that he hadn’t really read anything. He thought that I would probably give him a test in a day or so.
I’ve only got a couple of things to point out for Johnny in this example. First, there is no test. I don’t expect you to memorize anything. There is going to be so much information thrown at you that you can’t possibly memorize it all and it changes constantly. I do not want you to memorize anything except for the location of the answers. I knew that the information in the Repair Station Manual was too much for his first day — I just wanted him to become familiar with it. That manual contains a lot of answers to all of the questions that he was going to have in the coming months of his probation. I only wanted him to know where he could go for the correct answers and not just take some other mechanic’s interpretation of the answer as fact. The tech library has all of the answers that he is going to need for a long time.
The other thing that I wish I could have said to Johnny before we hired him and while he was still in school is this: “Don’t go in debt buying a large toolbox full of tools that you won’t be able to afford and that you are probably not going to get to use for a while.” Yes, you have an A&P license and you have tools but you are not going to get to use them on my helicopter until I know that you are not going to destroy it while you are “fixing” it.
R.E.L.A.X. You will still get a paycheck. We hired you for your potential. You are on probation, we are giving you a chance to show us that potential and we want to know what kind of attitude you are going to take on. I have interviewed many new mechanics who said they wanted to be helicopter mechanics, but I’ve been disappointed by many who didn’t realize what that was, or who didn’t have the patience to learn. They didn’t make it. There is so much to learn on a helicopter that it is going to take you a couple of years to feel comfortable around them. That’s OK. As long as you do what your supervisors are telling you to do and you are receptive to learning new things, you will do fine.
I will tell you a secret that the tool salesman probably didn’t tell you. The first “tool” that you are going to be using most of the time on a helicopter is a rag. That’s right. Not very glamorous, is it? A helicopter has many moving parts that are usually moving in opposite directions and grease is plentiful in the helicopter world. Grease is also a good inspection item as it can tell you many things on a helicopter. Grease is going to sling out in all directions and that is expected but there are many things you can learn by this grease sling. When it stops slinging, it’s time to regrease. While you are wiping down this grease sling, you catch a whiff of something that smells acidic. Check out the grease and it will tell you if you have bearings that are worn and running hot. Bearings are important on a helicopter and you don’t wait until they fail to replace them. You will do a lot of “rag wrenching” while you are on probation, but don’t get discouraged. We have all done it and we still do it. It is not menial labor. It is very important. Be patient. You will get to go out and do track and balancing someday.
Bob was another one of my new mechanics. Bob wanted to become a helicopter mechanic so we gave him a job and put him to work out on the floor performing inspections. Bob was nervous most of the time and deliberate during his inspections. We felt that he would loosen up a little the longer he worked, but he never did. The problem with Bob was that he lacked confidence. During an inspection, he would point out every flaw, blemish, smudge or wear mark. Minor cracks were grounding events. He would write up everything. Bob wanted to replace anything that had wear or wasn’t in perfectly new condition. We worked with Bob and tried to be patient, but Bob got worse.
I know that many of you will take Bob’s side and argue that he was doing his job. Why wouldn’t the end result of what he was doing be better? The problem that Bob had was that he was more worried about “his” liability than actually inspecting and determining the airworthiness of the helicopter.
There is an old saying that I use all of the time: “Anyone can ground a helicopter by picking it apart. It takes a good mechanic to keep a helicopter flying safely.” We did not hire Bob to be a parts changer. We hired him to determine when parts were worn beyond the manufacturer’s limits. Helicopters have normal wear for which engineers allow. They put limitations on the components and it’s our job to determine when they go beyond those limits and are no longer airworthy.
Bob did not want to take any responsibility for the airworthiness of his inspections. He did not want to look up the tolerances for the components that he was inspecting, he just wanted to make the customer buy new parts so he wouldn’t have to make an airworthiness call. If it’s worn, just replace it.
The other issue with Bob is that he took too long to do his inspections and then he never wanted to sign off his inspection. Bob was definitely in the wrong profession. It probably sounds strange, coming from the chief inspector of an FAA-certified repair station, but I tried to get Bob to relax and not be so stringent. If this was Bob’s mechanical standard, I couldn’t argue with him — but I’ve seen Bob’s car, and he definitely had a double standard. I know that a car and a helicopter are two different vehicles and I am not advocating “shade tree” maintenance. I am saying that Bob was not doing the job he was hired to do. He did not contribute anything to the team. Someone else always had to make the airworthiness call and someone else always had to sign off the inspections. In the end, we didn’t know what we were paying him for.
I want you younger mechanics who are starting out in this industry to relax a little. Your work will always be double checked because that is the way we ensure airworthiness and safety. It isn’t because we don’t trust you and we are looking to find something you missed so we can nail you for it. It’s because we all miss things and we want them found before the helicopter flies … period. When you are inspecting and you find the blemish or the wear, look in the book to determine if it is normal wear and not a problem or if it’s something that needs to be replaced. Always ask someone if you are not sure, but have a little confidence in your own mechanical abilities. Make a determination and move on. You got the job because you possess some mechanical skills and you chose to hone those skills at a certified A&P school. You were then tested by a DME with a written exam, and oral exam and a practical exam and he or she felt confident enough in your skills that you were issued a license to learn more. Have confidence in yourself and be patient. You have a lot to learn. You are going to become a helicopter mechanic someday.
Welcome to our profession.
Terry L. Peed has been in aviation for more than 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.