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Do Airplane Mechanics Ever Fly? July 23, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.

The central question about air travel boils down to: Do commercial airline mechanics ever fly in commercial jets?

This question occurred to me while waiting for a plane to be repaired in O’Hare a few months ago. The flight from France was a bit early, and so I rushed to get an early plane to Seattle. It was delayed by 10 minutes when I got through immigration, so I sprinted. This was a real score because it was scheduled to leave a full 3 hours before the flight I had a booking on. Had it left on time I wouldn’t have made it.

Only once I’d moved my reservation over did I realized the departure time had been moved from “10 minute delay” to “no estimate.” Hmm… That is never a good sign! In response to “What’s wrong?” I got back “The pilot noticed a bent turbine blade. They are just making sure that it is bent, not broken.” That didn’t sound too bad.

I walked around to the windows and I could see the engine being worked on. There was a guy, perhaps in his 50’s, standing inside the engine. He would brace the turbine with by jamming his foot between the blades. This kept it from turning. He would then saw away at one of the blades with what looked like a regular metal file. Every now and then he would pull out some sand paper and give it a rapid sand. All the while people – managers?? – kept wandering up to him and asking him questions. All, I imagine, that boiled down to “How much longer?” They would do this every 5 minutes. Eventually he turned around and gave some sort of long lecture to one guy — no idea, but I’d like to think it went something like “I’d have already been done if you guys didn’t keep interrupting me!” He looked like that kind of guy.

Eventually one of the managers came in to update the ground crew on what was going on. As he was walking away from the desk I asked him what was up. “Well, on the pilot’s walk around inspection he discovered one of the turbine blades was bent. The engine had probably sucked something in, like a big rock. The worry is that there is now a fracture in the blade, and through the course of running the vibrations will grow the fracture until it hits the hub of the engine. Then foom! the engine will come apart.” He paused. “And that is why a pilot has so much training. For those 10 seconds.” And then he walked away.

I looked back at the engine and the fellow now sanding away at the blade. He was soon finished and we boarded and I arrived two hours earlier than my original schedule.

It is nice to know that a machine as large and complex as a Boeing 757 can still be fixed by one guy with a file. On the other hand, I’m not sure they should have let that mechanic talk to me. I was sitting right next to that engine.

Update: Check out this comment left by a retired 757/767 pilot on another post. Especially the pictures of the Chinese jet engine and youtube video of a bird strike (i wish I could have seen what that engine looked like afterwards).


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