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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Say Thank You to Your Maintenance Staff

By Frank Lombardi

The next time you’re doing your preflight and marvel at the complexity of your craft, think about all of the parts that go unseen, which must work harmoniously for hours on end without fail. Lucky for you, your maintenance staff is intimately acquainted with all those parts. They have to be, if we are to provide airborne law enforcement day-in and day-out, and return safely to earth without an afterthought.

Before they can put their tools to work as a combined airframe and powerplant mechanic, they must first acquire at least 30 months of collective practical field experience, or learn their job skills during at least 1,900 hours of training in one of about 170 schools certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Either way, after completion they must then pass a written, oral, and practical exam, much like a pilot does, before finally earning their A&P license. Each mechanic must then maintain at least 1,000 hours of work experience every 24 months, or take an approved refresher course in order to keep their license current. Although not required, they can advance their certifications by taking courses in avionics and radio equipment as well.

Today’s rotorcraft mechanics might be more appropriately called ‘maintenance technicians’ since they must be proficient in a multitude of areas. They must have the insight of a cryptologist in order to understand and interpret the many Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), Airworthiness Directives (ADs), Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs), and numerous other documents. They must be skilled with a wrench in order to remove and replace a faulty engine part one day, and equally skilled with a multi-meter and soldering iron in order to fix a scratchy radio the next day. Modern avionics and mission equipment of a police helicopter can be a godsend to a pilot, but when they malfunction, they can create an electrical nightmare for the maintenance staff. In today’s digital environment, mechanics must possess near hacker-like skills to troubleshoot the aircraft’s many electronic signal processors. They must be perfectionists to an exacting degree when they tighten fasteners to certain torque values and measure tolerances to hundredths or even thousandths of an inch. Think of that whenever you let your altitude fluctuate plus or minus 50 feet.

The next time you’re on an extended search thinking about how uncomfortable your cockpit seat is, remember all the positions your maintenance techs contort their bodies into, in order to remove or replace parts, or even just to get a good look at something during their daily aircraft inspection. You will find them working through the uncomfortable summer heat for hours at a time on a ladder servicing the rotor head, where I’d swear it’s 10 to 15 degrees hotter just a few feet up from the hangar floor. Even in the bitter winter they are dependably outside running engine leak checks, again on ladders, this time under the dangers of the spinning rotor. If their job does not involve 24-hour shift-work, you can bet someone is standing by on-call, waiting for that phone call asking for help with an unscheduled maintenance item.

Essentially, our helicopters defy gravity by virtue of a fine balance of mathematical equations. Each component works for a very specific reason, and if a critical one fails, the results can have obvious far-reaching consequences. It was once said (hopefully somewhat tongue-in-cheek) "Mechanics like pilots who fly their craft so that components reach their full service life... As a pilot, you are neither feared nor envied, but merely tolerated." I’d be willing to bet that whoever said that was specifically talking about police aviators, as it would seem like we have an uncanny ability to break things better than most. And if your organization employs its own in-house maintenance staff, then there probably exists a special bond between those who fly ‘em and those who fix ‘em. Once you share meals and laughs with the people who help ensure your safety, it is something you don’t ever want to part with.

Our maintenance crews spend their days diligently inspecting and maintaining the integrity of our aircraft. I admire their resilience when they complete a required inspection, then work on an unscheduled item, and finally close their toolbox only to have us fly the next aircraft into yet another inspection. They do this everyday, because, after all, it is the nature of aviation. They knowingly and routinely accept this level of dedication and perfection required to keep us flying and free from harm. I speak for the entire flying community when I say they do a fantastic job. Thanks guys.

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