Every mechanic, at some time in his or her career, has needed the advice of another mechanic during the troubleshooting process, even if it were only to bounce an idea off of them. Sometimes you just need to verbalize your ideas for exterminating the gremlins that are driving you and your pilots crazy. During my 45 years in helicopter maintenance, I have acquired a very respectable network of experienced mechanics/friends who I can call on to bounce my ideas off and I know they will tell me if I am on the right track or if I am locked in tunnel vision and headed for the headlights of the train. Until you have been around a while in the helicopter maintenance industry and you have built your own network that you can trust, you can start by putting your trust in the manufacturer of the model aircraft that you are maintaining.
The OEM provides technical assistance to customers operating their equipment through the services of the OEM customer technical support department. Their services are free of charge, for the most part, but more detailed support or OEM repair services may require contracting. There are technical representatives (tech reps) located at the OEM facility and who can readily find answers to your questions. They have access to a vast amount of experience and information. They can go right to the engineers for answers or draw from their data banks of aircraft history. Chances are that your problem is not new or unique and someone else has probably already experienced the same issues. They will have that history. Where do you think they get all of this information from? From people just like you who called them for help. Tech reps are located around the world. They are assigned to different geographical areas to support their customers on a more personal basis. If or when they know that you are operating one of their aircraft in their area of responsibility, you can bet they will pay you a visit. Whoever you deal with, OEM or area reps, you will find that they are all friendly and ready to help you get your aircraft repaired and back in service. They understand the situation you are in and want to help. They know that if you are not flying your aircraft, it is probably not making any money for anyone. A missed EMS flight can cost the hospital $10,000. Also, if you are not flying your aircraft, you are not buying parts.
There are a number of things that you need to know and things that you can do to get the most out of their help. The more prepared you are, the smoother the experience will be. As I said earlier, they are experienced mechanics and they have become specialists of your model of helicopter, but they are also human. I have known many tech reps in my days and many of them are still friends of mine. I have compiled the following list of recommendations that I got from them that would make their lives a lot easier. When their lives are easy, they can make yours easy too.
Note: before contacting a tech rep directly, consult with your operations supervisor for operations procedures. If cleared to contact the tech rep:
1. Always try to fix it yourself first. You are the mechanic getting paid to maintain the aircraft. The tech rep doesn’t want to hear that the pilot just told you about a problem and you haven’t tried to do anything. He or she is not here to overcome your lack of experience or lack of ambition. Some private owners of helicopters have a tendency to think that when they bought their aircraft, a factory mechanic came free with the package. Wrong!
2. If you have been working on the problem and you just can’t beat it, by all means, give the tech rep a call. He or she wants to help you. Before you call, though, take a little time to get ready for him or her. Have all of your research material, data and publications together and open. Write down all of the trouble-shooting steps that you have already tried. Sometimes you will run across the solution to your problem on your own by organizing. Sometimes it makes more sense when you write it down. Be ready to give the tech rep all of the details including the type of aircraft, serial number, kits installed, symptoms of problem, what you have already tried and results, and how long you have been working on it. Make sure to list and identify all previous maintenance leading up to the problem at hand. In many cases this is the leading factor for the current problems you are having.
3. It is always best if you can send the tech rep an e-mail with this data before you call so that he or she can have time to become familiar with your problem. Sometimes when you get on the phone, you can forget half of the details needed. He or she might shoot right back to you with more questions. Answer them with as much detail as you can.
4. When you send the e-mail, send good, clear digital pictures of any areas of concern if applicable but be sure to reduce the size of the file. A computer or phone can get clogged up by 4Mb pictures.
5. When you call the tech rep, be ready to talk to him or her for a while. Make sure you are in a quiet place so the two of you can communicate. Don’t try to call from a noisy flight line and don’t call 10 minutes before you have to leave for a dentist appointment.
6. If the tech rep doesn’t call you right back or respond to your e-mail immediately, leave a voicemail with your name and number and a quick description of your problem. I said a quick description! You can give the details later when he or she calls back.
7. Don’t keep calling, texting or e-mailing. The tech rep will return your call as soon as he or she can but you must understand that he or she might be traveling to help another client. He or she could be on a plane or in the terminal, stuck in traffic or on the flight line with a running aircraft, or could be in the dentist’s office. Try to keep the calls during normal business hours. The tech rep has a life, too. Be patient.
8. When the tech rep calls you back, he or she still might not be able to help you right away. He or she may not have access to any manuals or might really be wrapped up in an issue with another customer. Please understand that you are not the only one needing help. If he or she can’t help you right away, he or she will always refer you to another tech rep who will help you. Sometimes the tech rep will just ask you to wait until he or she can get to the office to access his or her manuals.
9. When the tech rep calls you back and is ready to talk to you about your problem, be completely honest. He or she is not going to judge you unless you start hiding things and lying. Don’t try to hide your inexperience and don’t get defensive. The tech rep will ask you if you have checked all of the easy, obvious things. He or she might ask you questions that you feel don’t have anything to do with your problem. Answer honestly. Often mechanics get tunnel vision troubleshooting and the tech rep is trained to think outside the box. He or she knows more about that aircraft than you do. Don’t let your ego get in the way of finding the answer to your problem.
10. When the tech rep starts giving you some recommendations for what to check, do what you’re told. Don’t second guess him or her and only do the easy checks. If you don’t know how to do a certain check, say so. He or she will walk you through a check or send you the instructions. The tech rep wants you to do the tests correctly because he or she isn’t there with you and has to rely on your answers to troubleshoot. The tech rep only knows what you tell him or her.
11. While the tech rep is an experienced mechanic and trained on your aircraft, even he or she hasn’t seen every problem possible. Don’t expect him or her to pull the answer out of a hat in just a phone conversation. The tech rep is not a computer.
12. If the tech rep gives you some advise and it turns out to be the solution to your problem, call him or her back and share what worked. Share that information with others. Most of the time, mechanics fix their aircraft and never call the tech rep back until the next time they need help. Call the tech rep back, debrief him or her and say thank you for the help.
13. Sometimes a problem might be more complex and can’t be fixed over the phone. The tech rep might recommend that he or she comes to your facility to look at a problem more closely. This will have to be approved by his or her boss first and, most of the time, it is free to the customer. This will also be contingent upon the complexity of the problem. Obviously, if a customer wants to contract the OEM to send a representative to come and fix their aircraft, financial arrangements can be made.
14. If the tech rep gets approval to come to your facility, remember, you are still the mechanic and he or she is not there to do all of the work. He or she is there to help. Remember that the tech rep will not sign any of the work off. He or she can’t, so don’t ask.
15. The tech rep can’t make any airworthiness calls for you, either. He or she can only make recommendations for you. The tech rep is not the FAA but he or she will not sanction maintenance that is not in the book.
16. If the tech rep schedules a visit to your facility to help you, make sure you have all of the tools and parts you think you are going to need. The tech rep will not be able to hang around for a few days while you gather them. He or she will probably suggest a few things to have on hand upon arrival but it is up to you to be prepared. Make sure you are ready for the visit.
17. Once you know the cavalry is on the way, help the tech rep with arrangements like hotel recommendations, nearest airport information, etc. Meet the tech rep at his or her hotel or the airport and escort him or her to your facility if you can. The tech rep won’t have all of the codes or badges available. Sometimes the facilities that they have to find are well hidden. You’d be surprised where helicopters are kept sometimes.
18. Once the tech rep is there, don’t start asking for OEM swag. Now is the time to fix your aircraft. If he or she has any swag to give, it will come later.
19. Also, it shouldn’t be expected that it is the tech rep’s job to buy lunch or dinner on the manufacturer. He or she can enjoy a free meal, too.
20. During the tech rep’s visit, he or she is probably going to get some phone calls from other clients needing help. This is a tech rep’s life. Find a quiet place for him or her to do business. Give him or her space — someone else had to share the tech rep with you.
21. Make sure the aircraft is available and you have a pilot there that knows what the problem is. The tech rep will need to ask the pilot questions. You might also need a pilot to run or fly the aircraft. Make sure everything needed is available to him or her.
22. The key to the success of your experience with the tech rep is cooperation. Don’t dump your frustrations on him or her and don’t use him or her as a scapegoat. Be a professional. He or she will help you work through this downtime and get your aircraft back in the air.
As I said, many tech reps are good friends of mine. Respect the tech rep and become a friend. You will find that a tech rep can be a very good friend to have.
Remember that respect goes a long way.
I would like to thank all of the tech reps with whom I have worked over the years. They have bailed me out of jams and made me look good to my bosses.