Aircraft Accidents and Recognizing the Mentor

Dan Harper could be gruff, indifferent, and a practical joker.  He was also the best aircraft maintenance mentor I ever knew; a mechanical wizard, the likes of whom will never be seen again.  One time, he worked a B727 Flap problem that had plagued the airline, costing thousands of dollars in aircraft utilization: The Inboard Flaps would not align with the Outboard Flaps.  In one shift, with myself in tow, he ran the problem down to a bone-shaped input rod, two inches long, buried deep in the Flap Actuation system.  A sealed bearing, worth about twenty bucks, was corroded and preventing the proper feedback inputs to the Inboard Flap system.  What was so impressive was the problem had stumped dozens of mechanics and twice as many Boeing engineers for months.

Dan Harper retired in the 1990s.  The tenacity Dan taught young mechanics, like myself, stayed with us today, thirty years later.  These lessons were not easily earned; they required timing (being there when the job happened), being assigned to work with Dan that night and Dan making me an active part of the repair.

I am fortunate to have my younger son finishing trade school to get his Airframe and Powerplant maintenance certifications.  We get into some interesting conversations about the maintenance industry, his view coming into it – looking forward – while my view is as I’m phasing out – looking back.  A discussion we had made me think about both Dan Harper and my position as a Mentor.

In 1999, I was an Aircraft Line Maintenance Supervisor in Newark’s Liberty Airport.  One particular night, I assigned two senior mechanics, I’ll call ‘John’ and ‘Paul’ – who both had received the required MD-11 Systems classroom training – out to repair a coupling on an MD-11’s number two engine fuel line.  NOTE: McDonnell Douglas made great use of these couplings, while Boeing and Airbus did not.  John and Paul spent, what I believed to be, an excessive amount of time on the repair; time was running out; the plane was scheduled to push for an international red-eye flight at 03:30.  I drove out to the aircraft and made Paul get out of the Hi-Lift.  John and I then rode up.  As he shone his light, I separated the coupling – Zip-Zip – turned to John and said, “Now, fix it.”

Both John and Paul should have known better, right?  They both had received the proper training.  But, unlike Dan Harper’s mentoring of me, no one had ever demonstrated to John and Paul how to repair this particular coupling, one they had never worked on before.  This was in large part to the difference between heavy maintenance and line maintenance.  John and Paul were line mechanics (quick turn maintenance), while my background was in heavy (broken for days) maintenance.

When a mechanic receives training on an aircraft, it can come in four different ways: On-the-Job Training (OJT), Stand-up Instruction (SUI), Computer-based training and Web-based training.  Computer and web-based training is training by computer … period.  SUI requires an instructor, who is familiar with the aircraft, to teach the class all about the systems, engines, etc.  If there is an aircraft or simulator available, the students can be walked through the various parts of the aircraft.  The most effective training is OJT; it requires the mechanic to be guided through the various maintenance by a mentor, someone who can teach the ‘student’ how to do the task before signing him/her off as trained.  Where OJT exceeds SUI is that OJT teaches the task on the aircraft … every time; there are no ambiguous pictures or slides, the aircraft has to be on hand.

So why do I write this story?  Am I employing my readers as my confessors?  No, the point to be made here is, I was the only one out of ninety-one certificated mechanics who had ever repaired this particular type of coupling due to my heavy maintenance experience.  My concern with meeting a flight time prevented me from teaching John and Paul on something they had never done before.  This rare opportunity would have improved their knowledge and safety by my demonstration.

My actions frustrated a learning experience in two ways: my lack of patience prevented me from properly demonstrating what I should have exploited as a teaching moment, and, I discouraged them from turning to me in the future to learn and be safe.

Aviators, we are entering a dangerous time. Pilots, Mechanics, Air Traffic Controllers, Flight Attendants, technology is replacing you.  This is not an opinion or an emotional appeal.  These are facts that we, as professionals in an industry, must accept and, furthermore, understand.  It cannot be repeated enough.  The changes are gradual; one generation will not see the changes from the previous generation.  How the Airline Industry reacts to the Mechanic and Pilot shortages will be a far different long-term strategy than what the Aircraft Manufacturers are doing.  Manufacturers respond to the Operators’ long-term needs.  For example: Analog technologies have been replaced by more efficient Digital technologies – that’s a FACT. Bio-fuels will replace the standards of today, e.g. AvGas and Jet A – that’s a FACT.  Composite materials will replace, almost part-for-part, the metals aircraft have been built from for decades – that’s a FACT.  Operators demand the technology; Manufacturers will deliver the results.

Flight crews will eventually be downsized, if not eliminated altogether, in a short period of time.  The four-member flight crews of the Fifties were reduced to two-member crews in the Eighties; in thirty years the number of crew members were halved.  Thirty years later, where are we?  Already major manufacturers are researching and developing a one member or zero-member flight crew.  Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has proven the concept’s feasibility.  Who will the flight crews of today mentor?  Who will mentor the pilots of tomorrow?  What will be done with the lost experience?

Mechanics are, likewise, being cut back.  Since the early Nineties, the airliners themselves have been instrumental in troubleshooting aircraft problems.  Instead of two mechanics fixing an aircraft, the numbers drop to one mechanic and the aircraft’s computer.  The technical mental muscles we so frequently exercised with troubleshooting will be replaced by master computer diagnostics, employing sensors to locate the problem.  Without input from the mechanic the aircraft will order the part, spit out the maintenance paperwork and run the system test.  The mechanic?  He or she will assist the computer, replace the part and stand by to return the aircraft to service.  What will happen to those years of troubleshooting experience?  Who will be the mentor: the mechanic or the computer?

Air Traffic Controllers are welcoming in the servant to their future, Next Gen, or the latest version.  Computer run traffic control for our air lanes; little to no human intervention.  Computers on the aircraft talk to computers in air traffic control; very little verbal back-and-forth.  All route or altitude changes are done automatically by the aircraft’s system computers.

In the last two decades I investigated aircraft accidents that amounted to simple mistakes; dozens of lives were lost because of fundamental blunders in training, troubleshooting and familiarization.  Incorrect applications of procedures and the extinction of common safety knowledge prevented those without mentors from doing their job right and to the best of their ability.  And the irony is: we as an industry will never know how easily disaster could have been averted.  In a few years we will not even remember how to ask the question: “What could we have done to prevent this?”  Why?  Because there won’t be anyone in the industry who will remember how to do things according to ‘The Old Ways’.

It is up to us to keep the lessons of yesterday alive into the future.  I am here, recognizing my mentor, one mechanic who taught me how to do things right and safe.  He shared with me techniques no one uses anymore.  Why not?  Because the computer will fix it; that’s why not.  To all those mentors, whether Mechanic, Pilot, Air Traffic Control and Flight Attendant, we recognize you and will remember you.  That is, for as long as we’re around.

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