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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wesley Bowen, 60-Year Aircraft Mechanic

According to FAA records, Wesley R. Bowen received his engine rating in May 1946 and airframe rating in March 1947. He was granted inspection authorization (IA) in Oct. 1957. Bowen is a recipient of FAA’s Charles Taylor Master Mechanic award for more than 50 years of service. He started his career with the U.S. Naval Air Transport Command before working at Pan American Airways and Lockheed Missiles and Space. He now works on general aviation aircraft from a hangar at Red Bluff Municipal Airport (RBL) in California.

AM: Why did you initially decide to become a mechanic?

Bowen: I got into it during the latter part of the war [World War II] and was fortunate enough to work in the era of the clipper ships, or seaplanes. I just love aviation. Every person I’ve met in the industry over all the years, with possibly one or two exceptions, has just been great. They’ll help you, talk to you and do what they can for you. There’s something about the camaraderie that is wonderful and I have enjoyed every minute of it. That’s what got me into aviation and why I’m still in it. I could work on an airplane all day long and be happy as a clam at high tide. But to go out and work on my car? Forget it, I’ll take it down to a mechanic and have him do it.

AM: What types of aircraft have you worked on? Any favorites?

Bowen: I liked working on those old seaplanes. There are so many things I could tell you about those. The first is the Martin M-130, which was the true clipper ship for Pan Am. From there, it was the Boeing 314. Those are the two big ones that I really enjoyed working on because of the many features they had. But I also worked on other seaplanes before moving to DC-4s and DC-3s, and then the Boeing 337. So I worked on a little bit of everything as far as commercial. For general aviation, of course, I've worked on all the common ones, the Cessnas, the Pipers, a whole bunch of them.

AM: Is it easier or harder to maintain older aircraft than those of today?

Bowen: It’s kind of nice working on the newer ones. But some manufacturers, and many of them do it, don’t seem to learn from past mistakes. You would think they’d learn from the original block or two of aircraft that they manufactured and not make the same mistake twice. But they do. After looking at the list of ADs for a particular aircraft, you notice that a whole bunch of things have to be taken care of because of something that was not engineered properly, or not done properly when the airplane was manufactured, before it was turned loose to the general public. So for my part, I’d rather work on the older ones. That’s where I’m more knowledgeable.

AM: What differences have you noticed in working on military versus GA aircraft?

The military has its own set of regulations. They have to answer to a base commander. Generally when you get to the GA planes, you’re more on your own. You’ve got more responsibility to do the job properly, record the work that is done, get the information to the proper parties — it involves a lot of paperwork. One thing that’s nice about GA is the owners will sometimes say “Hey, we’re all through, would you go flying with me in that airplane?” And I say sure, let’s go. “You mean to tell me that you’ll go flying in the airplane that you worked on?” And I reply yeah, what do you think I worked on it for? You can get that reward, if you will, from working on GA airplanes.

AM: How have computers and the Internet changed your profession?

Bowen: I don’t think it’s changed the way that maintenance is done, per se, but it’s certainly opened up a lot more the ways that you can get information. It’s great. I wish I knew more about computers, but I manage to get by and get what I want, such as new ADs, type certificates, or engine documents. I have quite a library of older paper copy ADs, but searching though them can get a bit cumbersome. With the computer, you just sit down, punch them out and get what you want without having to fill up two cabinets of books, and that is a big help.

AM: What advice do you have for young students pursuing a career in aviation maintenance?

Bowen: I think the difference today is that most of the mechanics are shooting for the jets, the small business operations, or where a business has their own private plane. They aren’t exposed to the general service and maintenance of an airplane as much. A number of years back I got a call that they needed a fabric consultant at the San Jose office because I had experience with it and they wanted a reliable mechanic around, for at least the fabric work. Stuff like that the new mechanics are not exposed to because they don’t have the need for it anymore. But they should be exposed to it because every once in a while, something pops up.

AM: What opportunities have you been given because of your career?

Bowen: Way back I knew Amelia Earhart’s mother and she had it set up that I could have the job of maintenance manager for Peruvian Airlines. I didn’t go, and I’m glad I didn’t because of all the political upheavals and all that. I had other opportunities to go around with Pan Am, spending three years out in Honolulu, and in another case I kind of lived on a DC-4 for a couple years as part of an emergency crew that flew around to various stations. It was kind of crazy because you would work your tail feathers off and then get back on the airplane and conk out on your bunk. When you woke up you’d be in the air and have to ask the skipper, where is the next stop? And he would say Guam or whatever, to fix a rock through an aileron or engine problems, or whatever. It was a weird way to live. I also had some opportunities when I was with Lockheed.

AM: What’s the most difficult part of your current job?

Bowen: I think the most difficult thing about working in GA is having to tell the owner that he needs a cylinder change, or he needs something else, when he thought he was going along with no problems when bringing it in for an annual. I find that kind of difficult, but I know I have to do it. So I level with them and tell them exactly what I find. Unlike some other mechanics that I know, I don’t jump in there and jack the price up to where nobody can reach it. I like to charge a reasonable amount for my fee so that there’s some money left over to put in the gas tank and go flying.

AM: What are some of the more memorable moments in your career?

Bowen: The Boeing 314 had what they called a “sponson” or a sea wing and it was down toward the bottom of the fuselage. So when you wanted to get aboard you had to get onto the sponson and then step into the aircraft cabin. But between the aircraft and the dock there was a ramp, and a space of about maybe four feet or so where there was no railing or anything. So somebody had to stand in that spot so the passengers didn’t fall in.
Anyway, I just happened to be on the detail standing in that particular area, and as Admiral [Chester W.] Nimitz stepped off onto the sponson sea wing, the captain fired up the number three engine and the admiral’s hat blew off. Just as a quick reaction I reached out and grabbed the hat, then shoved the admiral through the door and into the airplane, threw his hat in after him, closed the door and got the heck off the sea wing. After things calmed down a bit I saw my boss, the maintenance manager, who was a retired Navy chief. And I thought, oh man, I’m going to have to go looking for another job. He said: “Hey Wes, do you know what the heck you just did?” Yes sir. “You know that’s the admiral that you threw into the airplane?” Yes sir. “Do you realize that you could get in trouble?” Yes sir. “You know what? I’ve waited for years to do that. How come you get to throw the admiral? I wanted to do that.” So not only did I get a pat on the back, I got the rest of the day off to celebrate.
In another instance, on the big seaplanes there used to be these latches, and there was a work ramp alongside an engine with the plane tied up to a dock. It would be a nice day, with beautiful sunshine, and all the sudden there would be a big splash. What do you know? One or more of us dropped off into the water just to go swimming a little bit. Then the boss would come over and raise hell, saying to get back up on that platform and get the engine work done, and stop swimming. Its stuff like that I remember. We’d just have a good time with one another and after everything was done, we’d pull up our stuff, go back to the hangar and grab a cup of coffee.

AM: What drives your dedication to the job? Why do you still work?

Bowen: I’m 85 years old, and as I’ve said, I just thoroughly enjoy my chosen profession of working on airplanes. At times I wish I had my private pilot’s license activated again, but there’s a feeling of reward when someone comes in with a broken airplane, if you will, and you fix it up. And then you stand there and watch it take off and climb out and that thing performs beautifully. There’s a reward to it. Besides, I’d go nuts if I didn’t have something to do. I’m physically and mentally able to stay with it, and that’s why I’m still here I guess. There’s an old saying, if you like what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day of your life.

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