What makes an A and P Mechanic ?

Builders:

The question came up in conversation at our airport over the weekend. The person asking it was really interested in how few hours it takes to qualify for the federal license exam. Instead, in my 25th year of being an A&P mechanic, I shared the qualifications that mattered to our Embry Riddle Maintenance Department Chair, Richard Ulm, (USMC) :

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1st Lt Dick Ulm - MCAF Yuma, Az

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Above, Dick Ulm, on a 1962-63 West Pac deployment. Many of our instructors at Riddle were Vietnam combat aviators. The experience left them with a sharp definition of integrity. On issues that mattered, things were black and white, devoid of gray area.

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While I knew Mr. Ulm as both a student and an employee of his, I would more accurately describe him as my mentor of ethics in aviation. On the subject of being an A&P mechanic (which was very different than being someone who merely possessed the paper) he strongly felt that there were two simple requirements for anyone to rightly claim the title:

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You must be able to unflinchingly tell anyone, the pilot, the owner, the passenger or the Feds, that a plane was un-airworthy, no matter what this cost you, including friends, social standing or even your job. There could be no external consideration that mattered, there was only airworthy or not, and what or whom it cost to correct had no bearing, period.  The slightest hesitation to state the facts as known, disqualified one from being a mechanic in Mr. Ulm’s world.

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Second, A mechanic must be externally confident in his training and judgment, but internally he must have continuous self doubt and questions. He must always look at his work with a critical eye that does not belong to his ego. This is vitally important in General Aviation, where the operators are not professionals, the systems are not redundant, and the flight training may be rusty. In this setting the mechanic could never believe that a pilot pre-flight or another airman would prevent an issue. In General aviation, the mechanic is frequently the last line of defense. In this setting, there was no room for the man who tested only to validate his thesis, believed he was infallible, or thought his views were technically correct. The mechanic who protected the passengers was the one who listened to input and as vigilant for that lesser part of himself that believed he would always be right.

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On Saturday, My Friend Chris stopped by. He is a master sheet metal mechanic, and he works at Northorp-Grumman (St. Augustine) on E2-D’s and F-5’s. 25 years ago he was one of my roommates at Embry Riddle, and a stellar student in the A&P program.  It was a sunny afternoon and we spent a few hours catching up. I brought up the question that was asked about A&P licences. We both noted how car mechanics and people from outside aviation think being and A&P is some kind of extension of mechanical skills or a federal license, when it is actually nothing of the sort, it is a question of understanding the ethics of being another human’s last line of defense.

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Three of the four men in the stories below, including Dick Ulm, have passed from this earth. What I was able to learn from them a quarter century ago, still lives, and as they shared it with me, I bring it to builders in aviation who wish to learn the values of character and ethics which never change.

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ERAU – models of integrity

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ERAU – models of integrity #2

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ERAU – models of integrity #3

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ERAU – models of integrity #4

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-ww.

About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

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