As the Wrench Turns: The Mechanic and the Tree, Lessons Learned from John Goglia

Imagine 2 a.m. on a brisk autumn morning at Logan. The leaves have fallen off the trees and I’m working the midnight shift at Allegheny Airlines. Back in the late 1960’s, the aircraft were Convair 580s and I was doing overnight service checks. We had a crew of twelve, and more aircraft than gates. These were the heady days of aviation expansion; Allegheny was adding aircraft almost faster than mechanics to service them. Gate space was at a premium, boxed in as we were between American and National Airlines. This was in the days before the new terminals increased gate space and the fuel crunch reduced flights, leaving hundreds of aircraft parked in the desert.

Because of the constrained space, mechanics had to be taxi qualified as soon as possible. Every night aircraft were jockeyed around the airport so that the overnight crews could get to them. All the young guys wanted to taxi aircraft. The bigger the better. Pilot envy? Maybe. But it was also just plain fun. The thrill of moving a sleek metal machine. A congested terminal area seemed more akin to an obstacle course, heightening the risk. And the thrill.

I never wondered why, until that night, none of the senior guys were as eager to taxi aircraft. But I get ahead of myself. That night, I was assigned an aircraft right by one of the two Allegheny gates. No aircraft jockeying for me that night. Not long into my shift, a supervisor came hustling out to round up a few of us to scout out a problem just radioed in by a mechanic taxiing an aircraft out to remote parking. He needed help but he didn’t say what kind of help. Keep in mind - this was not only pre-cell phone days; heck it was pre-walkie talkie days! Well not exactly, pre-walkie talkie; they existed, but it wasn’t common for maintenance personnel to have them.

We got in the truck and drove the mile out to the former National Guard area not knowing what we would find. The area was pitch dark; the parking area a horseshoe shape that dead ended. We had to maneuver around two large aircraft to get close enough to see the problem. And then, there it was. In the bright beam of our headlights: the errant airplane’s left wing nestled among the bare branches of a large, deciduous tree. Could have been a maple. Could have been an oak. For sure it was the only one on the airport. And this poor fellow had managed to get his aircraft entangled in it.

The damage was minor. So far. A broken position light lens. But the aircraft couldn’t go forward – a large branch had stopped its forward progress. And it couldn’t go backwards without damaging the wing. Our first goal was to free the aircraft without doing any more damage. (This ended up involving the creative use of chains and an aircraft tow tractor.) The second goal, of course, was to cover up the incident so that no one would ever know it happened. We were somewhat less successful on this front. Word spread pretty quickly on the ramp. And I don’t think the poor guy’s ever been able to live this down. But I learned from his incident. And I was never so quick to volunteer to taxi aircraft again, especially in tight locations, without adequate assistance.

Moral of the Story: You can learn from the mistakes of others. It’s ok to ask for help; especially for wing walkers and marshallers when you’re on a crowded ramp area. And if a senior mechanic doesn’t want to do it, find out why. There’s got to be a good reason.

P.S. As the Wrench Turns welcomes reader participation. Thank you, FlightSafe, for your maglite story. Glad for the happy ending. And Nelson, please encourage your fellow mechanics to send in their Skydrol stories.
 

Comments

Great story. When the old timers are not jumping to take on the task you should ask yourself "what am I missing?". Reminds be of the story that you can always tell the experienced cowboy because he is the one sitting in the middle of the pickup truck so he does not have to drive or get out and open the gates.
Pay attention to those with more experience! They will teach you things you don't learn in school.

Yes, I remember in the Navy, at the time I was working graves and wanted to get turn-qualified (E-2 Hawkeyes) because we always had pending hydraulic checks to make, and there were only two of us airframe guys on the shift. I was Airframe mech, and the turns were conducted by Powerplant personnel. So two of us got this training and found ourselves out on the line more and doing the hyd checks on work completed. It was really a great experience and wouldn't trade it, however the reality of things set in quick. You would miss lunch, stay after work numerous times, as these checks were mixed in with other work, allowing the Powerplant people to get their checks in too. Then when you had problems, you just stayed out there until you completed the fix, unless somebody relieved you, but typically not since you were already there. I always wondered why a lot more people were not jumping for that chance, but we were warned it may be fun at first, but then it would wear off. I still enjoyed it, but there was a price to pay for it. After that experience I would always hesitate when something good came about, trying to figure the downsides.

Usually I was finding out why senior mechs were taking on specific jobs, when I would think it not such a great catch. I was amazed to find some of the perks that went along with this. One example (the base is closed now), some final line checks were completed on C-118s out of overhaul. I thought the job had too much overtime so I declined. After a few jobs with them, I found they would take off for two of those 4 hours overtime and go to the local club. I couldn't believe it. They reasoned nobody cared as long as the job got done...plus they were raking in overtime.

Great story John! This also brings up a point about the aircraft mechanic and his/her responsibility on the job and fair compensation. As a young line mechanic myself and being eager to jump at the controls of anything I worked on too was great fun but you don't realize the responsibility that you have control of. After a while of taxing aircraft and takeoff power runs it hits you. If I was a pilot, I would be fairly compensated for the one aircraft I was a PIC for and be given an FAA type certification for this approval. The mechanic on the other hand has an A&P license which clears him to work on anything and be fully responsible for. I attended the 4 weeks of training on the aircraft, passed all the tests and passed the taxi sim ride but what did I get more and more responsibility without any additional compensation. I can tell you there is nothing like doing a full power takeoff check on a 767 but for what. If something happened like in your story, I would be on the street in a heartbeat. When will the industry recognize all the responsibility that mechanics have and be fairly compensated? When will the FAA move to an EASA type certificate for each aircraft we work on? There was an attempt in the 90s but it went no where due the industry. When will mechanics say enough?