The Right Stuff

There was the first time I heard it from my then top hero, my uncle John (or should I say Captain John). In the early 1960s, when I was about eight years old, I could not have had better influential role models preparing the way for me in my nascent aviation career than my dad and my uncle John.

Captain “Uncle” John was a very young, brilliant and articulate navy flyer with a million-dollar smile that could be seen across the tarmac in Pensacola right through his oxygen mask as told by one of his Chiefs. He was being considered for astronaut candidacy. It was at our kitchen table in suburban south Minneapolis one hot evening before air conditioning that he told my dad and me he had the “right stuff,” according to the program selection committee. His eventual choice was the nuclear program. That’s quite enough about flyer stories; let’s talk about the “right stuff” that makes great mechanics.

As I was thinking about our collective professional advancement in aviation maintenance and examples you could choose to model sans the smile, two of my colleagues in the Delaware Valley came to mind. Their character attributes are the same set and in the same genre as “the right stuff” stuff. They have a passion for what they do and a way of expressing it so others can see it. There are a host of professionals I could pick on for this article, and will do so in future correspondence to you, but these two have the recent accomplishments that match and that is what I’m looking for to point the way for our growth and understanding.

Now to my first point and example, how can you express to others what is on your mind and in your hands without speaking or writing? This character attribute will fulfill you after you’ve done it and, God willing, inspire others who feel the same thing, thus striking the match to the fuse of leadership. Christopher Jackson responded immediately to my writing/speaking challenge about a month ago and proceeded to pen an article on something he felt was a common thread for all of us.

Chris is an aircraft technician who holds an A&P/IA. He is also working on his AET rating. Chris has 21 years of experience in both military and civilian aircraft. He currently works for a Fortune 100 corporate aviation flight department with me. Enjoy!

I’m not a pilot
Christopher Jackson

There I was — no, not 38,000 feet, but standing in line at the grocery store behind 38 bone-weary customers. I was thinking about my BBQ list, wearing my free aviation shirt, when I could see the clerk about to ask the all-too-familiar question when I got to the front of the line! Even before he could get it out, I said no I’m not a pilot, I’m a technician. I get to work on them.

I was expecting some type of let down from him, but to my surprise he said “that must be a really cool job.” This was one of the first people to ever have this reaction that was truly heartfelt, not just words.

 So, thinking about this on the way home leads me to ask who we are. We are the ones who as kids took apart the box to see what made it work or why it wasn’t working. We are each someone who could make something to solve a problem or make things easier … see the dotted lines on a flat piece of paper and tell what it would look like folded.

 That said, new aircraft have become easier to fly and maintain, paradoxically engineered more complex, in turn moving our skill set from being just a mechanic to technicians. Consider the old floppy disk moving to the USB stick and the ever-present Moore’s law. Our toolbox has moved to a laptop in many cases. Paper manuals have been replaced with electronic ones. We get updates for FMS online that soon will be able to be done with WIFI direct to the aircraft via satellites in flight or other wireless networks in the hangar. We can even upload and track our aircraft records online while keeping an ever-vigilant eye of the complete package, so to speak, from due cards to on-condition items.

New aircraft rely on LRUs and electronics to control systems. Yes, our aircraft have moved from mechanical to plug and play, and if we have a problem sometimes it’s the old Ctrl+Alt+Delete method for the instant gratification fix. All this technology, including glass cockpits to feed crews and us lots of information.

Our world has once again given us a chance to take on new challenges. Our goal should be to have a full understanding of the whole aircraft. This will let us be the jack of all trades and if we are lucky, the master of it, too. The fringe benefit is hours of fun, entertainment and hair pulling, but I think most of us would welcome this. There is nothing better than when the aircraft lets us know you have troubleshot a problem that seemed unexplainable and knowing that you figured it out. We have to be that curious kid again who peered into the black box and challenged ourselves. One way we can do this is to become an AET (Aircraft Electronics Technician) from NCATT (National Center of Aerospace Technologies and Training).

So, next time you get the age-old question, be proud to say, “No, I’m not a pilot I’m a technician.”

 P.S. It’s probably best for everyone that the only place I get to 38,000 feet is in the simulator.

Chris made a point of the speed of technological change in our chosen industry and I’ll add the idiom, “In today’s world, if you’re standing still you’re actually moving backwards.”

Fulfilling our natural curiosity can be very rewarding internally. Putting your personal reputation on the line as a defacto leader of technology in a shop can be risky, especially if you stumble in the process. It takes the “right stuff” to believe that attaining new knowledge for value sake that makes Rick Stradyley’s effort as an experienced A&P pushing the envelope to become an avionics technician noteworthy for all of us.

Rick was the lead technician when I reported to work as his manager almost a year ago. Clearly, he had earned that title the old fashioned way. We talked over many nights on the late shift solving squawks and comparing notes of how systems worked, discussing design evolution and all of the common topics in our industry. Our company was undergoing fleet change and we discussed all the ramifications of what that would mean, the challenges of new technology and how to stay on top of the game.

Many of you, upon initial contact with NCATT and the AET certification process, question its validity. As well many hearing of NBAA’s “Project Bootstrap” program (fusing the A&P and avionics technician disciplines together) for the technician of the future challenge its concept. Fair enough. As the founder, I say other programs have offered you a false promise.

Rick’s reaction to these programs is what I hope to capture in this article. He saw it as a new challenge and a pathway to understand how all the machine works. In all humility, he felt that all he needed was the right curriculum, the right study guides and a little support from his employer. He would supply the time and the effort — whatever it took. I tried to prepare him for the difficulty of the test and make him aware of what he was putting on the line in terms of possible failure. His response again was the appropriate one: “I’m going to do whatever it takes to learn the material and pass the test.” I’m sure it was a familiar path of discipline for him because I’m not aware of a problem he had not fixed on an aircraft. Do you as the reader feel that?

Let me make the point a little sharper. The AET certification does not an avionics technician make. NCATT has two additional endorsements ready for you to study and test to. They have two more endorsements soon to be available and nine more to design. Project Bootstrap architecture has a Master Avionics Technician rating upon collecting 90 percent of them. Rick cannot wait to start on the endorsements. I want to encourage and inspire you with his example (yes, an A&P can do it) but passing this test means learning new knowledge. In my experience it took two years in a tech college to gain it. I used that to move into engineering and made my way back to what I truly loved: restoring aircraft to airworthiness. That included all parts of the aircraft, including the problems designed into the airplane, especially the avionic flaws. That’s when the fun really starts.

I hope the younger guys coming into our industry take advantage of the new programs out there to pick up both ratings simultaneously. Colleges are starting to offer four-year degrees in our field.

There is a reward waiting for the mature folks among our population. You have to see through Rick’s eyes or have the vision like his. What matters most in our industry is that which cannot be taught in a classroom: integrity. Our signatures may be the most potent in the transportation industry. We have a trust that few enjoy. Situation ethics and the economic business combined with mission criticality are all natural forces that create a pressure to sign something we are not ready to do. I think most of us would rather lose a job than to cave to those forces.

If we are not there with the new knowledge that Rick has embraced, combined with all the wisdom, maturity and willingness to speak or write it as Chris has demonstrated … if those who have manifested the “right stuff” are not there to ensure these traits get passed on to the next generation ... well, I choose not to carry that thought line further because I know you are there to read this. I know many of your hearts and minds because I have had the privilege to meet many of you. You are familiar with the reward; you have the “right stuff.”    


Brad Townsend is a 35-year experienced AP/IA/avionics technician, founder of Project Bootstrap (NBAA professional maintenance technician development program) and currently serves as the Chair of the NBAA Maintenance Committee.

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