What do you notice when you step onto an airplane? Are you fascinated by the rows of seats in front of you? Excited for your trip ahead? Or maybe you just want to get the flight over and done with?
Working in such close proximity of airplanes has given me a completely new perspective on these machines. I actively look for burnt out lightbulbs; missing parts; scratches and dents in the walls. I know all the secrets latches and tricks on each plane. For example, how do you recline a business class seat if there’s no electrical power to drive the buttons? In fact, planes no longer seem like such a huge vehicle to me anymore. They’re just machines, really, with many parts fit together by screws and rivets. I don’t want to take away any credit that this piece of technology fully deserves, but once you get to know airplanes well enough, you realize that it isn’t so much of a ‘black box’ after all. Even though everything is mechanically intertwined and designed to be the most efficient in terms of both mass and volume, each function of the airplane is a separate system. I’ve learned about this theoretically in school, and now that I’m facing these machines every single day, I can physically see how each subsystem is divided up.
So many people have asked me about my job and what I do, I’ve decided to sit down and actually write about it (even if most of those people won’t read this post anyway). To be honest, we only have three tasks as a mechanic…
One: Pick up incoming flights, and check out what’s wrong. We fix whatever we can, if there are problems. For everything else, we just defer the the defects (if they’re not critical) until we have more time to fix things, since our transit times are quite tight in between flights. Just for the record, this act of deferring is more of a legal issue than anything else.
Two: Carry out work orders, presented in the form of work cards. This kind of work is also known as scheduled maintenance (whereas the above is unscheduled maintenance). Scheduled maintenance is also a legal requirement, and it’s part of why people refer to planes as the safest form of transportation in the world. Aircraft are checked every 36 hours (36HR Check), weekly (Weekly Check), approximately every 3 months (A-Check), and every 2 years (C-Check). Each of these checks incorporate different tasks, from mostly visual inspections with the 36HR Check to a complete cabin strip-down and renovation in the C-Check. Of course, the time required for each check also ranges proportionally. A 36HR Check can be completed in 2 hours, while a C-Check will take at least 3 weeks.
Three: Finished up whatever deferred maintenance there is before the time limit is up. Maintenance is deferred for many reasons, but usually it’s nothing too different from these reasons: not enough time on the ground/at home base; no replacements in stock; or not enough manpower. If defects are deferrable, they will also definitely come with a due date proportional to its affect on aircraft safety.
As a fun aside, I’d like to say that there’s also a lot to learn about the Hong Kong International Airport. This building is huge, and I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of ‘secret’ doors, but there certainly are a bunch of passages that the general public wouldn’t know about. I don’t know how I used to automatically overlook all the doors that said “Staff Only” – it’s like how JK Rowling describes Muggles, ‘not being able to see magic’ because they only see what they like to believe. Okay, maybe not quite that, but the point is, when something is not relevant in your world, it somehow just doesn’t appear.
The truth is, there are probably more “Staff Only” doors than you ever imagined. When you’re at HKG for a departure, you can take the APM (Automated People Mover) away from the entrance. When you arrive at HKG, you can take the APM in the other direction, towards the entrance. But the building is designed such that if you are departing, there is no way you can take the APM in the other direction. (Let that be a warning – if you accidentally take the APM away from your gate, you’ll have to walk all the way back!). And same when you arrive. So how do employees like me take the APM to and from work every day? Yes, you must know the secret doors.
When you’re walking inside the building, it only seems to have one corridor. It’s just a very wide hall, with boarding gates on both sides. Well, when you’re walking around the apron (outdoors ground level), suddenly there are two sides to the hall. You can’t just cut across to the other side at any place – you have to find specific passages. It took me a very long time to get comfortable and familiar with this working place. I wouldn’t call it a maze, but it’s definitely complicated for the unfamiliar people.
(I’d love to show you around, but my workplace isn’t exactly a place you can easily get access to…)
I’m excited by everything I see. Recently I was at the new Midfield Concourse, and I noticed how their new parking placers no longer include the past generation of planes – the MD11, DC10, etc. Yes, our technology has improved since then, but after watching countless episodes of Air Crash Investigation, I can tell you that those planes are the ones we’ve learned the most lessons from; not because those planes were badly designed (although that does play a small role), but mostly because the legislation and culture of aviation practices were not as developed as they are now.
Stepping onto the airway and being faced with an open door no longer means the start of a trip… it means work. But that doesn’t mean I love my job any less. Every time I head out to respond to a call, I still wonder, where is this plane coming in from? I truly hope that there will never be a day where that thought does not come across my mind.