HOW TO OPERATE A HELICOPTER MECHANIC

By William C. Dykes

A long, long time ago, back in the days of iron men and wooden rotor blades, a ritual began.  It takes place when a helicopter pilot approaches a mechanic to report some difficulty with his aircraft.  All mechanics seem to be aware of it, which leads to the conclusion that it's included somewhere in their training, and most are diligent in practicing it.

New pilots are largely ignorant of the ritual because it's neither included in their training, nor handed down to them by older drivers.  Older drivers feel that the pain of learning everything the hard way was so exquisite, that they shouldn't deny anyone the pleasure.

There are pilots who refuse to recognize it as a serious professional amenity, no matter how many times they perform it, and are driven to distraction by it.  Some take it personally.  They get red in the face, fume and boil, and do foolish dances.  Some try to take it as a joke, but it's always dead serious.  Most pilots find they can't change it, and so accept it and try to practice it with some grace.

The ritual is accomplished before any work is actually done on the aircraft. It has four parts, and goes something like this:

1. The pilot reports the problem.  The mechanic says, There's nothing wrong with it."
2. The pilot repeats the complaint.  The mechanic replies, "It's the gauge."
3. The pilot persists, plaintively.  The mechanic Maintains, "They're all like that."
4.The pilot, heatedly now, explains the problem carefully, enunciating carefully.   The mechanic states, "I can't fix it."

After the ritual has been played through in it's entirety, serious discussion begins, and the problem is usually solved forthwith.

Like most rituals, this one has it's roots in antiquity and a basis in experience and common sense.  It started back when mechanics first learned to operate pilots, and still serves a number of purposes.  It's most important function is that it is a good basic diagnostic technique.  Causing the pilot to explain the symptoms of the problem several times in increasing detail not only saves troubleshooting time, but gives the mechanic insight into the pilot's knowledge of how the machine works, and his state of mind.

Every mechanic knows that if the if the last flight was performed at night or in bad weather, some of the problems reported are imagined, some exaggerated, and some are real.  Likewise, a personal problem, especially romantic or financial, but including simple fatigue, affects a pilot's perception of every little rattle and thump.  There are also chronic whiners complainers to be weeded out and dealt with.   While performing the ritual, an unscrupulous mechanic can find out if the pilot can be easily intimidated.  If the driver has an obvious personality disorder like prejudices, pet peeves, tender spots, or other manias, they will stick out like handles, with which he can be steered around.

There is a proper way to operate a mechanic as well.  Don't confuse "operating" a mechanic with "putting one in his place."   The worst and most often repeated mistake is to try to establish an "I'm the pilot and you're just the mechanic" hierarchy.  Although a lot of mechanics can and do fly recreationally, they give a damn about doing it for a living.  Their satisfaction comes from working on complex and expensive machinery.  As a pilot, you are neither feared nor envied, but merely tolerated, for until they actually train monkeys to fly those things, he needs a pilot to put the parts in motion so he can tell if everything is working properly.  The driver who tries to put a mech in his "place" is headed for a fall.  Sooner or later, he'll try to crank with the blade tied down.  After he has snatched the tailboom around to the cabin door and completely burnt out the engine, he'll see the mech there sporting a funny little smirk.   Helicopter mechanics are indifferent to attempts at discipline or regimentation other than the discipline of their craft.  It's accepted that a good mechanic's personality should contain unpredictable mixtures of irascibility and nonchalance, and should exhibit at least some bizarre behavior.

The basic operation of a mechanic involves four steps:
1. Clean an aircraft.  Get out a hose or bucket, a broom, and some rags, and at some strange time of day, like early morning, or when you would normally take your afternoon nap) start cleaning that bird from top to bottom, inside and out.  This is guaranteed to knock even the sourest old wrench off balance.  He'll be suspicious, but he'll be attracted to this strange behavior like a passing motorist to a roadside accident.   He may even join in to make sure you don't break anything.  Before you know it , you'll be talking to each other about the aircraft while you're getting a more intimate knowledge of it.  Maybe while you're mucking out the pilot's station, you'll see how rude it is to leave coffee cups, candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and other trash behind to be cleaned up.
2. Do a thorough pre-flight.  Most mechanics are willing to admit to themselves that they might make a mistake, and since a lot of his work must be done at night or in a hurry, a good one likes to have his work checked.  Of course he'd rather have another mech do the checking, but a driver is better than nothing.  Although they cultivate a deadpan, don't-give-a-damn attitude, mechanics have nightmares about forgetting to torque a nut or leaving tools in inlets and drive shaft tunnels.  A mech will let little gigs slide on a machine that is never pre-flighted, not because they won't be noticed, but because he figures the driver will overlook something big someday, and the whole thing will end up in a smoking pile of rubble anyway.
3. Don't abuse the machinery.  Mechanics see drivers come and go, so you won't impress one in a thousand with what you can make the aircraft do.  They all know she'll lift more than max gross, and will do a hammerhead with half roll.  While the driver is confident that the blades and engine and massive frame members will take it, the mech knows that it's the seals and bearings and rivets deep in the guts of the machine that fail from abuse.  In a driver mechanics aren't looking for fancy expensive clothes, flashy girlfriends, tricky maneuvers, and lots of juicy stories about Viet Nam.   They're looking for one who'll fly the thing so that all the components make their full service life.  They also know that high maintenance costs are a good excuse to keep salaries low.
4. Do a post-flight inspection.  Nothing feels more deliciously dashing than to end the day by stepping down from the bird and walking off into the sunset while the blade slowly turns down.  It's the stuff that beer commercials are made of.  The trouble is, it leaves the pilot ignorant of how the aircraft has fared after a hard days work, and leaves the wrench doing a slow burn.  The mechanic is an engineer, not a groom, and needs some fresh, first hand information on the aircraft's performance if he is to have it ready to go the next day.  A little end-of-the-day conference also gives you one more chance to get him in the short ribs.  Tell him the thing flew good.   It's been known to make them faint dead away.

As you can see, operating a helicopter mechanic is simple, but it is not easy.  What it boils down to is that if a pilot performs his pilot rituals religiously in no time at all he will find the mechanic operating smoothly.  ( I have not attempted to explain how to make friends with a mechanic, for that is not known.)   Helicopter pilots and mechanics have a strange relationship.  It's a symbiotic partnership because one's job depends on the other, but it's an adversary situation too, since one's job is to provide the helicopter with loving care, and the other's is to provide wear and tear.  Pilots will probably always regard mechanics as lazy, lecherous, intemperate swine who couldn't make it through flight school, and mechanics will always be convinced that pilots are petulant children with pathological ego problems, a big watch, and a little whatchamacallit.  Both points of view are viciously slanderous, of course, and only partly true.

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