Before I stepped up to a lead mechanic position at American Airlines, I worked as a mechanic on the front lines. The great thing about aircraft maintenance is, as Forrest Gump put it, ” like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”. Every night brings a different aircraft you can be assigned to with either no problems to fix or everything under the sun wrong with it.
Aircraft maintenance for major airlines takes place at night since flights operate during the day. Not many people know everything we have to do to ensure an aircraft is ready to fly by morning. I’m here to lift the veil, so to speak.
A typical night as an aircraft mechanic starts after being assigned to an aircraft. At the airport I work at, Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA), we primarily work on the Airbus A319/320/321, Embraer E190 and Boeing B737/757 fleets. The operation is split between the hangar crew, who are assigned one aircraft for a heavier check, and the line crew who are typically assigned 22 aircraft total. I started out on the hangar crew and am currently on the line crew.
Every aircraft is carefully inspected every night for any kind of discrepancies ranging from tires and brakes to burned out light bulbs. On top of this check, an aircraft can have a laundry list of items that are assigned to be looked at. This can range from a simple check of aircraft systems from the cockpit to an emergency evacuation slide change and more. The way aircraft maintenance works at a major airline is by progressive maintenance. This means various items on each aircraft are inspected over the course of a year while still being legally safe to fly to prevent an aircraft from being grounded for months at a time. Each mechanic is responsible for ensuring the aircraft is airworthy, or safe to fly. The best way to describe what an aircraft mechanics does is that they are responsible for the dismantling, inspection, repair, reassembly and release of aircraft.
The hands-on side of maintenance can be fun; however, after all of the maintenance comes the mountain of paperwork. Every action is documented both on paper and electronically. A typical airline jet carries over a hundred passengers. As you can imagine, this places a huge responsibility on an aircraft mechanic’s shoulders to deem an aircraft safe to fly. Therefore, everything must be critically documented. As a lead mechanic, I have earned the nickname “CO” for corrections officer. I scrutinize every piece of paper that comes across my desk to ensure there are no mistakes in documentation.
Another reality that falls into the unknown about aircraft maintenance is that almost all of it takes place outside regardless of if it’s raining, snowing, or windy. Pair this with it being nighttime and it makes for a lot of miserable mechanics. I think this is why mechanics tend to have a good sense of humor. You need a few good laughs to take away from the harsh weather and long nights at times.
Most people think of pilots and flight attendants when they think of an airline because that’s who they see when they fly somewhere. So, the next time you’re flying somewhere, think of the people who’ve stayed up all night to make it safe for you, the pilots, and flight attendants to fly. We may be a little dirty from working, but we love what we do!