Pearls of Wisdom from the Unforgettable Crew (What They Didn’t Teach You in A&P School)

By Matt Hernandez

“Why did you choose to be an aircraft mechanic?” I have been asked this question many times. “Because I love airplanes” is my usual response — but my deeper, more philosophical response should be, “because they represent freedom.” Yes, freedom, both literally and figuratively.

Dec. 13, 1960; I was three years old when my family emigrated from Cuba to the United States. We escaped a communist regime to find freedom in this country. We settled in Philadelphia, which was an industrial center at the time, and my dad was able to find work. These days, a kid might ask his peers, “What does your father do for a living?” When I was growing up it was, “what factory does your dad work at?”

One of my fondest memories as a child was going to the open-air observation deck at PHL with my family and watching, in awe, as the “Radial Queens” of the day, with a puff of smoke, fired up each engine and literally shook the earth. This was like a magic trick to me. POOF. The inanimate object came to life as a living, breathing organism that could defy the force of gravity. Such a display of controlled power makes quite an impression on a young boy. Oh, there were jets, too, in the early 1960, but they were the exception rather than the rule. The airlines used the new jets mainly on the overseas routes. The majority, the “bread and butter” runs were all served by the “Radial Queens.”

“What type of aircraft did we come from Cuba in?” I have asked my Dad this question many times since I was a child. His answer is always “I don’t remember.” As I grew older and became more aircraft knowledgeable I have asked more questions like “Two engines or four?” (Four!) “One vertical stabilizer or three?” (One!) I was hoping it was a Connie. “What airline was it?” The one with a picture of the sun on the tail! After a brief bit of web research, aha that’s it, a National Airlines DC-4! (Thanks, Dad. More on the DC-4 later.)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” my parents would ask. “An aeronautical engineer,” I would say. Looks of approval would fill their faces. Dad worked with engineers at the Star Sprinkler factory. They designed fire control systems for buildings. These guys were the most respected ones in the factory. They wore a suit and tie, had a nice desk job and rarely needed to get their hands dirty for a living. I also chose that profession because Fred Mac Murray, the father on “My Three Sons” was an aeronautical engineer. He was wise, the kind of guy that would smoke a pipe with one elbow on the fireplace mantle as he pondered that great questions of his day, “How do we beat the Russians militarily and how can we get to the moon first?”

After high school, I studied aerospace engineering for one semester at Pennsylvania Institute of Technology (PIT). I found that algebra, trigonometry and geometry were not my strong suit, nor did I like the countless hours of drawing screws, rivets and nuts on the drafting table. Hey, I thought I was going to design airplanes!

One day we were driving down Grays Ferry Avenue and, quite by accident, I saw it. Or should I say, how could you miss it? The building had airplanes on its roof and what looked like the entire front section of a DC-4 sticking out from the side. The letters on the front of the building read “Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics School.” I guessed Airframe meant fuselage but Powerplant, well, ah, that must mean they train guys there to work for the Electric Company. I went in and spoke to the director. I found out that for the small sum of about $2,500, I could become an A&P. What a deal! I’m in! Once I started my studies there, I found that the school left a little to be desired in terms of state-of-the-art training aids. We had an old, unairworthy Globe Swift whose lower wing skins had corroded beyond limits, but the engine still ran perfectly. One of the training aids in the shop was an old Curtiss OX-5 engine. This was literally a museum piece, as I found out while visiting the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. “We have one of those in our A&P School,” I said, to anyone listening, “yeah the guys from previous classes would leave beer cans in the cylinders and nasty notes for our entertainment.”

A casual atmosphere prevailed in those two years at A&P school. This was quite a contrast from high school. The instructors, as well as the students, would smoke in class. As many of the students were Vietnam veterans, they were somewhat “battle hardened,” to say the least. Occasionally there would be disruptions in class and the instructors would handle these in swift military fashion. That is to say, four-letter expletives would sometimes be tactfully employed.  You didn’t mess with Instructor Ed; here was a guy who fought the Nazis in WWII (the big one) and you were no match for him.

June 12, 1978, was a great day for me. A newly-minted A&P, I was hired by the oldest continuously-operating FBO chain in the country, to work at its main MRO base in Wilmington, Del. The maintenance manager introduced me to the foreman, who in turn introduced me to Herb, my first lead man. Herb was a fascinating character, a modern-day renaissance man. He enjoyed many pursuits (that way you have something to talk about in old age).

He was in, no particular order: a drag racer, speed shop owner, motorcycle racer, weightlifter/bodybuilder, scuba diver, boating enthusiast, “Double Naught spy” (probably!) and donut lover. Herb’s toolbox was a thing of beauty. It was a Brown Kennedy box with every tool imaginable. There were pictures all over it that showed some of his interests — mostly fast cars and bikini-clad young women. On top of his box Herb always had a huge radio playing classic rock — yes, he loved music, too. Funny thing is that Herb, as the lead man, rarely needed to use his tools as he spent most of his time assigning work to the other guys on the crew and handling the CAMP cards and work order. There was always an air of good-natured ribbing going on and Herb was not immune. “Why do you need that big toolbox?” the other mechanics would say. “You would be better off with a wooden crate with wheels on it to set that radio on.”

Every crew needs a mix of talent and teamwork to succeed. This crew had had those qualities in spades. “You wanna make it past probation don’t you?” “Well yeah, of course,” I said. I figured a gullible greenhorn such as I needed all the help he could get. “Well then you gotta get on Herb’s good side, see, that way he’ll give you the gravy jobs and give the foreman a good review on your job performance.” The best way to do that, I was told, was to bring Herb a box of donuts every day. “If you do this, Herb will never forget you for it.” What I didn’t know was that Herb was on a special diet at the time. Well ... he didn’t forget me for it. I was getting only the crap jobs like opening panels and greasing the gear.

The very first real aircraft I worked on was a Hawker Siddeley 125-1A owned by an electric company. I had never heard of Hawkers before. I asked Dave, one of the senior guys in the crew, what that open hatch was on the bottom of the fuselage was for. “Is it where the toilet dumps?” Dave laughed and said “go ahead take a look inside.” It was a confined, confusing mass of cables, wiring, hydraulic tubing, electrical panels, air ducts, etc. I asked Dave, “How could you possibly keep things straight while working back there?” And there was the first pearl:

Lesson one: Keep it simple.

Dave said to me, “You break it down to the system you are working on.” I got it, no need to be concerned with everything all at once, stick to the system you are working on and keep it in bite-sized pieces.

Lesson two: Leadership

As the months rolled by, I was gradually beginning to understand why Herb rarely needed to use his tools. He reminded me of an orchestra conductor. He was managing his resources, keeping the time, directing his players and reading the music. Most of all, he was always available to answer the endless stupid questions from a young, inexperienced A&P.

Lesson three: Keep your eyes open

I guess Herb did not consider me totally incompetent because one day he asked if I would like to do a “card inspection of the cockpit in a 125-400A.” This is it, mom, you should be proud now. Your boy is no longer just a “panel opener” and “gear greaser,” no! I have graduated to the rarefied realm of aircraft inspection. I was now trusted to do a job that was usually reserved for the older, more experienced guys. I wanted to do a thorough job and write up any discrepancies I found. Then I got to the task on the card that read “Operationally check the windshield deice alcohol system.” For those of you not familiar with this aircraft, it did have, like most other modern business aircraft, electrically-heated windscreens. As a backup, a more primitive system was employed, which consisted of a methanol tank mounted in the right wing root area, with associated tubing and a hand pump in the cockpit. When I pumped the handle, I found that the system was not working. All right! I’d found something! I wrote it up in the work order. Herb will not regret giving me this important task. The next day I found a piece of card board with a “homemade” eye chart on my box. There was also a pair of safety glasses. I asked what the deal was. Dave told me to “look at the airplane.” “Do you see anything?” Yeah, the “bathtub” (wing to fuselage fairing) was missing. The methanol tank which was attached to it had been drained and removed from the aircraft. The guys all got a good laugh at my expense. I learned to check what configuration the aircraft was in before writing up a squawk.

Lesson four: Resourcefulness, honesty and hard work

When I began my career as an A&P, there were still a lot of WWII guys working. It was the dawn of my career and the dusk of theirs. These guys looked like grandpops. One particular guy was nicknamed Hap. When the other guys spoke to me about him, it was always in reverent tones. “You know Hap flew the Hump in WWII.” I had no idea what that was, so I would just nod in agreement whenever they said it. I figured that he flew in an aircraft that resembled a camel with a “hump” on top of the fuselage. Hap had a tendency to not remember the names of the new guys, so his greeting to me, as well as every other new guy, was a pleasant, “Hey, hey, HEY!” Whenever I worked on an engine and Hap was working on the other side, he would yell “got my side done!” way before I was finished. I later learned that he would use adjustable wrenches, almost exclusively, when taking things apart! The worm gears in his wrenches would be hot at the end of the shift. The other guys would say, “Hap will always give you an honest eight.” In other words, no goofing off when you are on the clock. Later I found out that Hap had only one lung, yet he managed to work harder than most of us. Long after Hap had retired, I read a few books about the brave flight crews that flew the Hump, the resupply route over the Himalayas to China. Here was a living history lesson in flesh and blood, yet I only showed indifference towards him at the time. Thanks Hap, wherever you are. You showed us how a hero could be a quiet and humble man, and the value of an honest day’s work.

Lesson Five: Attitude

A couple of years later, I was transferred to work on new IAI Westwind deliveries in another hangar. It was there that I reported to a new lead man named Tony who was also a WWII veteran. Tony was quite a contrast to Hap. He was louder and more boisterous. Tony was a retired Air Force “Chief Master Sergeant.” Our company had gone through a massive hiring period and I found myself as one of the most senior guys on the crew. One of the other mechanics on the crew, we’ll call him Charlie, was very impatient to move ahead. He wanted a promotion and associated pay increase. This guy was very sharp, very knowledgeable and a hard worker. The only problem was that he did not care who he flattened with his unbridled ambition. He was like a steam roller. One day he said to Tony, “I don’t know why I am still a “B” (class mechanic); everyone knows I am a better mechanic than any of those other guys on the crew.” Tony’s years of experience in shaping young men kicked in as he said to Charlie, “It’s because of your attitude. It takes more than being a good mechanic. You need to work well with the team.” He went on, “The cream always rises to the top” and “Flies will come quicker to sugar than they will to crap.” (Only he didn’t say crap). Charlie liked to argue, “I don’t know Tony, they seem to like S*** an awful lot, too!”

Lesson Six: Quality

We had just put new wing leading boots on a South American Westwind. It was Friday afternoon and we were anxious to start the weekend. All that was left was to put sealant along the top and bottom of the wings to “fair” out the boots. Tony was working in another hangar and I was in charge of the crew. “No problem,” I said, “four guys should handle it, two per wing.” We were done in no time. The only problem is that the sealer looked rather lumpy in more than a few areas. Tony frowned as he looked at our work. “What about that sealer?” he asked. I fired back a few choice clichés I had heard: “Good enough for government work, Tony,” and “You won’t be able to see it at 35,000 feet.” Tony’s eyes narrowed, and he said, “Listen to me, if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing it right.” His wisdom was clearly communicated. The task at hand is more important than a few beers at the Seventy-Sixer Bar and Grille.

Now I am at the fourth quarter of my career, and as I look around I wonder, where are the new guys? I see a lot of very experienced gray-haired guys, and the young A&Ps that I work with are in their forties! We need to share these “pearls of wisdom” with the young A&Ps coming into this industry. Don’t do it for me, do it for Herb, Hap and Tony!

Back to a Growing Community of Leaders

I’ve read Matt’s article several times and I’m struck with the story. Professional writers spend years attempting to get the reader involved that far and that quickly. Truly Matt and Chris (the earlier writer in an article I submitted a few months ago) are representatives of who we are, though I admit they are exceptionally talented individuals who have much wisdom to offer. Who are we and why is it that I can arbitrarily ask just about any one of you to perform a professional task including writing and speaking (usually the manifestations of upper-class educated people in our country) and not only do you usually say yes but perform to a very high degree, that’s completely out of the typical blue-collar envelope? I continue to stress that we are different, a cut above.  

If you’ve read any of my stuff before, you know I am nothing if not a dyed-in-the-wool believer of what we can achieve. You’ve just witnessed an example. As chairman of the NBAA Maintenance Committee the past two years, I saw them all the time ... they have become the new normal for me. This is the reason for my confidence in you and this is why I am eternally optimistic about our future.

Remember the Goglia thesis? I’ll wait a tick until you’ve reviewed.

Are you ready for the Townsend corollary on the Goglia thesis? The minority of our numbers will grow in education and responsibility through the growth of a community of leaders (among us) establishing new industrial certification (NBAA Project Bootstrap) with enhanced privileges above the IA certified by the FAA (industry partnerships), executed and communicated by the NBAA MC, AMTSociety and PAMA whom met at the NBAA MMC this year, and announced via press release a joint agreement pact to work together for the good of all members and professional aircraft technicians worldwide.

Continuing, we already have this fine magazine (thanks to Greg and Joe) working to communicate our efforts, we now have Giacinta Bradley Koontz, a professional historian, chronicling our advance. Don’t forget the efforts of our own John Salame, Chairman of the NBAA MC Communications subcommittee. We have NCATT providing the certification path for avionics technicians, Flight Safety International and Global Jet Services providing basic new education for the NCATT AET rating, not to mention Simulflite/CAE working with Sparks on another NBAA MC standard for the future called BASE, a professional education standard. Let me also tie in Ken MacTiernan, Director for AMTA. He has been working diligently with Richard “Dilley” Dilbeck from the FAA’s Sacramento FSDO to create a national AMT day on May 24, Charles Taylor’s birthday. They have driven the ball hard for many years, twisting arms and forming letter-writing campaigns to pass a resolution in all but six states and then finishing the federal work after that. MacTiernan has installed busts of Charles Taylor in museums and I’ve heard that he has been doing this from his own personal funds. Both Dilley and MacTiernan are true leaders in our industry and thank God we have them.  They’re in the red zone and now we can all work together to get the ball in the end zone. I believe we (NBAA, AMTSociety and PAMA) will focus the efforts recently made on a resolution to work together and will assist to get this done. AMT National day is highly symbolic for our future efforts and puts us in the spotlight for a moment of each year for the important service we provide to the safety of national transportation.

 This community of leaders includes our partners at the FAA. During the last two years, we have made long strides in partnership with Phil Randall and Guy Minor of the FAA FAAST team. We have made much progress in understanding what each other does between the D.C. FAA policy group and the NBAA MC leadership team, so much so that we were personally invited to visit D.C. staff under Carol Giles and Dan Batchelder. What an exciting two days that was. Meeting the FAA Deputy Director John McGraw and hearing his two cents on the genesis for changes in phrases like “current” and “actively engaged” were. When I consider the NBAA MMC meeting used to be populated at around 25 or so back in the early 1990s and we just had 400, and the highest concentration of maintenance leaders in once place, it is prima fascia evidence we are growing this community of leaders.

I would be remiss if I did not talk about two individuals in that many of you already know — if you are not aware of them, this will be your introduction because they will have a profound positive effect on you if you’ve already put yourself in the minority elite technical management class the Townsend corollary applies to for the future. Eli Cotti (NBAA Director) and liaison for the Maintenance Committee works tirelessly and selflessly for the benefit of NBAA member companies. He supports everything we do but his service extends to all professional technicians. He is literally the guy who ties all the loose strings together in terms of the right people meeting and working together. He is our D.C. strategist and interpreter to most if not all the other alphabet groups including ICAO and IBAC, which we’ll be working with soon. Cotti also has a desire from the heart and the wisdom from a rich tapestry of experience in our business to weigh in and help steer leadership direction.

Another leader is Marlin Priest. He has moved from the NBAA MC vice chair to the MC Chair position. Priest is uniquely qualified to take the position. He has been involved with NBAA for more than a decade as a visionary volunteer, guiding most of the major program decisions from initial presentation to full implementation. He has a keen eye on the road to the future and I have no doubt that he will continue with great conviction the course the committee has been on. Jim Janaitis and Len Beauchemin, the past two NBAA MC chairs, join in my assessment. The level of confidence we have in Priest, Cotti and their leadership team, including the new vice chair Sparks and my favorite Cajun, Patrick Delahoussaye (chair of the Nomination subcommittee and Charles Taylor award winner), along with recent growth in our leadership community inspire the last three chairs to continue working on the committee. I believe Priest is going to call us the three stooges or something along those lines.

I wish I had more time to tell you about all 150-some NBAA MC leaders in all subcommittees, including our new partners the Technical committees lead by chair Mike Webb and vice chair Murray Thole (another individual I have the distinct fortune to work with directly in my day job). I will leave it to Tom Hendershot, executive director at AMTSociety and PAMA president Dale Forton to talk to you directly about their leaders in their organizations.

I’ve tripped across the top of the very deep subject of a meeting this spring between NBAA maintenance committee, AMTSociety and PAMA. I’d like to mention the folks behind that sea change in attitude strictly for your benefit. It seems much to my ignorance that everybody on both professional representative organizations have been involved at some time on in each other’s business, wanting to do it another way. Forming two was a little like dividing property and children during a divorce settlement. It never really gets settled. Leadership principles usually separate the men from the boys in tough times because the men have to compromise and practice diplomacy for the greater good. I have never seen such pragmatic leadership demonstrated as my old friend Hendershot and our new partner Clark Gordon. As leaders for the two respective organizations AMTSociety and PAMA, they have raised their eyes to your future and laid down their differences. To be sure, there is tough work ahead for Priest, Hendershot and Forton, but these leaders are all too familiar with the times. I thank them for their combined wisdom in advance. 

Time — yes it’s all about time, isn’t it? Will we grow our community of leadership to fill regional needs in time to avoid the loss of transfer of critical information from this current generation of professional aviation maintenance technicians to the next? Will there be a next generation of technicians? Will this community of leaders be able to inspire them with new professional levels in time? Will we have enough interest in the current aging workforce to inspire current technicians to gain their NCATT AET rating, or will they muddle through the ever-advancing technological aircraft platforms being delivered now to a hangar near them?

I cannot answer all these questions that I pose and I know you have more. I know one thing for sure. The growth of our community of leaders is tantamount to solving all these problems. We are taking back our industry for the first time in history. We have Charles Taylor’s blessing — my old and recently-passed friend Howard Dufour, Taylor’s biographer, assured me of that. Additionally I know the number of current leaders working together is growing and we are resolved to working out every problem that comes our way save one ... where are you?

Remember, engineers design them and pilots fly them, but we make them fly again and again. 

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