As one might imagine, the life of an aircraft mechanic is not a glamorous one. Earlier, I passed along a few memorable tales of my time as a mechanic for a larger regional airline. This time, I would like to elaborate on what a typical day is like for an airline mechanic. For me, my average day would start with a grueling drive.
Being a union shop, my seniority was high enough that I could have taken a first shift position (6:00AM to 2:30PM); however, I found the days off I could get on second shift better, since I was one of the senior mechanics on that shift. Upon arriving at the employee parking lot and catching the shuttle bus to the terminal, the fun would start.
A typical day at the office would start with all eight mechanics on duty gathering for a team meeting, where our lead and supervisor would go over the status of the planes that were currently either broken, or inbound with issues, and divvy out the day’s assignments. Sometimes, there would be one or two airplanes with unresolved issues that would be turned over to second shift by first shift.
If I was assigned to one of those planes, it would be a mad dash to whatever gate or hardstand (a remote parking spot, usually for out-of-service aircraft) the aircraft in question was parked at to get a verbal and visual turnover from the mechanics coming off shift. Since there was only 30 minutes of shift overlap, we had to make this quick! If we were not assigned to a plane that was already broken, we were on standby. If we were lucky to be on standby, we would monitor the arrivals status board and hang low until a call came in.
Usually, we would get lucky, and a flight crew would call in 20-30 minutes before they arrived. This gave us a chance to get a head start on our troubleshooting. We would do our best to decipher the issue from what limited information we had, and start going through our various manuals; usually the Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM) and the Fault Isolation Manual (FIM). This way, once the plane got to the gate, and all of the passengers deplaned, we could jump right into the issue and get it sorted out quickly.
The usual call would be a minor issue, such as a passenger reading light inoperative or an indicator light bulb burnt out on the flight deck, all the way up to having to replace a worn tire or brake. Most of the time, it was routine fixes; though sometimes, the call would be a little more intensive.
The airline I worked for operated a large fleet of Bombardier Dash 8-Q400s, and one of the most common issues we would have is a “DeIce Pressure” caution. The Q400 uses rubber boots that inflate with engine bleed air to break away ice that can form on the wings and tail, and this system is controlled by a series of distribution valves – two in each wing and two in the tail. Usually, when we would get a call that a plane was inbound with this particular caution light, we knew that chances were it would be one of the valves that failed. So we would check our inventory to ensure we had one at our station in Seattle, gather all of our references that we needed from the manuals, then wait for the plane. If all of the boots were inflating properly, we knew we had a hole in a one somewhere. When that happened, we would get out a patch kit and do a thorough inspection of the section, usually by inflating the boots, finding the hole, then patching it with a special high-strength rubber cement and a rubber patch.
Other times, calls would be much more intensive and mind-boggling. Every once in a while, a plane would go down for maintenance at an outstation (a destination served by our airline, but did not have any stationed maintenance). When that would happen, we would usually get asked to head that way, in order of our seniority and qualifications. Since I was certified to perform engine runs and taxi the Q400, I would get asked to go out of town on a somewhat regular basis. Many of these would be easy trips, and we would be back in the same day. Others would be several days long, with very long hours to get the plane back into service.
Once, I was sent to Reno with another mechanic to fix a hydraulic leak on an aircraft, and I ended up being away from home base for 36 hours, with 24 of those hours being on the clock. Going on these rescue missions, as we called them, were usually an adventure. Most of the time, we would have less than 30 minutes of notice to grab our gear and get to our flight out. Many times, it was cut very close, and I have had a few flights held for me to get on-board. There were times, in extreme circumstances, where we would bump passengers off of a full flight, but we hated doing that. One of the perks of being a mechanic was that we had jump seat privileges, and if it was a full flight, we would usually sit in the flight deck with the pilots. That never got old!
Half of the fun about going on a rescue mission was trying to get home. Once the work was done, and the aircraft was back up and operational, we no longer had priority for getting seats on a flight. Usually, this was not an issue. Many times, the plane we had just fixed was no longer needed, as the passengers that the plane were originally scheduled for had been accommodated on other flights. In cases like this, the plane would be flown back to either Portland or Seattle for use on another flight, or as a ready spare in case of a maintenance issue with another aircraft.
In these cases, we would be able to fly back on the empty re-positioning flight. These were always fun, as it was usually just the pilots, flight attendants, and the mechanics. It is amazing the performance that the Q400 has when it is very lightly loaded. There were a few flights were we were airborne in less than a thousand feet.
Once in a blue moon, however, we would need to tag along on a check flight to fully diagnose an issue in the air. In these cases, it would just be the pilots and the mechanic. These were always a blast, as the crews very seldom got the chance to just fly around without anyone else on board. Usually, these flights would just entail a quick hop up to altitude, check out your issue, and land. Other times, it would require replicating conditions, such as bank angles, power settings, etc. This is when it would get fun! Imagine standing in the aisle of an empty plane, holding on to the seats, while the pilots would put the plane through its paces — it became the best roller coaster ride you could ever dream of!
The old adage with aircraft mechanics is that the job is not complete until the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the repair accomplished, and this would seem very true at times. Usually, the paperwork would entail simply signing off the aircraft maintenance log book. When signing off the log book, we had to ensure that anyone who read our entry could comprehend what we did; thus, each sign off would usually have a detailed description of the work we accomplished, and would cite the various sections of the AMM, FIM, or FAA-approved maintenance task cards that the airline used.
At my carrier, after the aircraft log was signed off, we would still not be complete. We would go back to our office and enter the data that was on the log page into our maintenance tracking computer system, then pass off the paperwork to our lead or supervisor for review. Many times, we would have multiple pages to enter, and this could be a long and tiring task.
A now-classic Northwest Airlines Boeing 757 at Hangar Schiphol East for maintenance
My airline’s headquarters did not have a hangar for the aircraft I worked on, and our resources were limited. If an aircraft came in with an issue that we could not fix at our base, but it was still airworthy otherwise, maintenance controllers at our main maintenance base could obtain a ferry flight permit for said aircraft to get it to our hangar. When we did this, there would usually be severe limitations. For example, certain issues would require that the landing gear be down at all times, or that the aircraft not be pressurized on the flight, and weather would always be a factor. We loved and hated ferry flights. It would usually get a problem bird out of our hair, and become another crew’s problem but, the downside was the paperwork: ferry flights required a very precise log book entry and inspection, and it could drag on for nearly a whole shift at times.
Most days, however, would not involve ferrying airplanes, going out of town on rescue missions to exotic locales (with populations less than 20,000), or a mad dash to fix broken plane after broken plane. No. The typical day would actually be quite uneventful, with only maybe an hour or so of pure knuckle busting scurrying during the large afternoon/evening bank of flights. We would usually be hanging out in our break room, playing cards or dominoes, reading, or catching up on the latest movie. And if that got boring, we would simply walk upstairs and stroll the terminal. The later would become a routine for a few of us. We would grab a radio so we could be contacted if needed, and stroll to the far end of the airport, a round trip distance of over a mile. It was a great way to pass the time and also get some exercise.
No matter what happened on any given day, we were always glad to see the end of the shift roll around. It signaled that it was time to catch the shuttle back to the employee lot, and then make the long drive home. We would all wake up the next morning to repeat the process all over again, but we were happy doing it.