In which I am stuffed into various tiny airplane compartments.
At my mechanic job I have two mentors – let’s call them Wizard and Wizard Junior. I think Wizard might really be a wizard. Legend has it that he can walk up to an airplane, put his hands on the skin, and immediately tell you exactly what it needs. Maybe it’s just a legend, but I like to think it’s true. I DO know that he can gather fault codes and history, sit down at one of the computers we have for documents, parts catalogs, etc., tap away for a few moments, then look up and say “I know what we need to do to fix this.” And he’s always right.
Wizard Junior is probably a mortal, but he knows his stuff too. As a mentor, he seems to enjoy setting up little tests for me – like unbuckling all the fire extinguishers in the cabin to see if I’ll notice, or testing my resolve to finish a job without throwing a wrench at him.
Something they both do, which I appreciate, is treat me like I can do stuff. They don’t pull punches and they don’t give me the easy jobs. That said, I’ll admit that there are times when I wish they would doubt my abilities so I could sit in the ready room and catch up email instead of doing Wizard’s Task du Jour.
This brings me to a pair of anecdotes. In the first, Wizard told me to go pull some sensors out of a pack line (packs supply engine air to other parts of the aircraft – it’s call bleed air). The assignment was to pull out the sensors, check them for contamination, clean them if necessary, and then put them back in. Easy, right? Well, sure, if the pack line were accessible. It wasn’t. It was in the avionics bay of a 737. This is a small-ish airplane.
To get into the avionics bay you crouch under the plane, up near the nose gear, open a door on the bottom and climb up through it into the belly of the plane. Doesn’t sound too bad. But, the pneumatic line in question was over on the sidewall and to get to it I had to squeeze my upper body between two supports, then find enough leverage to turn the fasteners.
One was positioned so I could enough leverage on it, but the other one, not so much. I tried lying on my back and my side. I tried kneeling and reaching in. Finally I had to ask a very slender colleague to get in there and loosen the electrical connector. This was after a sweaty frustrating 30 minutes or so, amid the deafening roar of the avionics cooling fans which didn’t seem to be cooling me at all. He was very gracious, and together we got the task completed, but ugh.
Then, the other day, Wizard Junior sent me to inspect the horizontal stabilizer jackscrew. This particular airplane part was made famous in the tragic crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261. Now there’s an Airworthiness Directive requiring that they be inspected at regular intervals.
Once again I was dispatched to the claustrophobic confines of a 737 compartment. This time it was in the very rear of the plane, behind the aft pressure bulkhead. I’ve done this task on an Airbus 330 before, and didn’t know how good I had it then. On the Airbus, you climb up into a palatial compartment. It’s especially nice on rainy nights because it’s warm and dry and the rain makes a pleasing sound on top of the fuselage.
Not so on the 737. The opening to get into the compartment is tiny, the platform to stand on is slanted (and when you’re an airplane mechanic your boot soles are often greasy) and there are plenty of cables to get tangled in.
I tried to hoist myself into the compartment from the lift, but the door hangs down, so I could get the lift only so high. So then I got my knee up into the compartment, but my shins are pretty long and my boots are huge and bulky – the result was that I almost got my leg wedged into the opening, lengthwise. I managed to unstick myself, then called Wizard Junior and asked him to bring over a 2-step ladder.
He did bring the ladder – the price for receiving it was to listen to his hysterical laughter as I explained the whole thing about my overlong shins and giant boots. But, the ladder did the job – I was able to get in there and do the inspection without further incident.
I think the hardest part about this new job is that everything is so … new. I don’t have a previously established way of doing a 737 horizontal stabilizer jackscrew inspection, so I have to figure it out for the first time. I’m sure the next time will be easier, and the next time after that easier still. And, eventually (I’m told after about 5 years) I will have done many, many things many, many times, and they’ll be second nature. But for now, everything is a first for me.
I look forward to gaining more experience. In the meantime, I’m very grateful for the wisdom and good humor of Wizard, Wizard Junior and all my other colleagues.