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Maintenance Minute - July 2023 | On Call

Posted 302 days ago ago by Admin

It was just before bedtime. You know that moment when you know that you should make your way to bed because if you don’t go now, you will be on the couch or slumped over in a chair for the rest of the night. I was at that point when my cell phone began to scream like a red-tailed hawk looking for his next meal. My response was something like, “Oh no, not now.” Sure enough, it was the night pilot and calling that late meant there was a problem with the helicopter.

Not letting on that I was almost asleep, I answered with a brisk “hello” and followed with “what’s wrong. Is everyone ok and where are you?” He proceeded to tell me that he had experienced a transmission chip light and made a precautionary landing in a cow pasture. When he gave me the directions, I knew exactly where he was located. The aircraft was about sixty miles from my house and about one hundred and twenty miles from the base from which he departed. This was in the bottoms near the Coosa River. This was during the summer and after the evening rainstorm we had earlier I knew that fog would be creeping in soon. As we began to wrap up the call the pilot humbly asked, “will you please bring some mosquito spray? These things are attacking us.” Quickly, I traded my pjs for work clothes and headed out for my on-call adventure.

My first stop was at the local Walmart for a tall can of mosquito spray and then to my sister base nearby for oil, filter, ladder, a bucket, and extra batteries. Finally arriving at the property around midnight, I found the pilot and the property owner enjoying coffee and conversation on the front porch. The pilot introduced me to his new friend who first said to me, “Keep an eye on that bull. He don’t play nice so don’t trust him.” Great, I thought, but I cannot let him steal my focus. I chuckled as I took a moment to imagine the conversation I’d have with my CEO as I explained why his helicopter had been destroyed by a lovesick bull. “Yes sir, a bull, and no sir, I’m not sure if insurance covers it.” I really need a suitable emoji to insert here. 

The pilot was assigned the critical job of lookout so I could concentrate on things other than the bull. As we approached my flashlight beam hit the helicopter. I could see the nurse and medic who appeared to be asleep inside where they had taken refuge from the kingdom of mosquitos that swarmed the pasture and engulfed the helicopter. Taking out the can of Off, I quickly sprayed myself down and passed the can around. This created a shield of defense for all of us.

The transmission chip plug had some fuzz and I decided to do a drain and flush. The Off did a good job but I still had to swat mosquitos with my hand during the entire mission. After a ground run, I signed off the logbook and the aircraft was placed back “In Service.” The time was now around 2am and, you guessed it, the fog had rolled in. Flying was no longer an option, so the crew loaded in my truck, and I drove them back to the base about a hundred and twenty miles away. When I arrived back at my house the sun was coming up. After a few hours of sleep, I returned to the base. The fog had lifted, and the aircraft had returned as well. All’s well that ends well, right!

When evaluating the safe operation of aircraft maintenance there are many factors that must be considered, especially if maintenance is performed after hours. First and most importantly is fatigue. Is the mechanic properly rested? Bad decisions usually go hand in hand with fatigue. Is the mechanic’s supervisor engaged and monitoring the progress? Does the mechanic have all the tools and training to do the job independently? Is the mechanic a critical thinker? What about environmental conditions, such as rain, snow, fog, heat or cold and uninvited insects or unexpected animals?

On-call work can be very frustrating and extremely rewarding. Remember, when the aircraft fails during a mission the company asks you to make it right and return it to service. This is a huge responsibility, and we always want a good result, but we need to have the experience and maturity to determine when it is not safe to continue. The Essential Tool of Integrity is a must in this situation where we do the right thing no matter the cost.

After all these years, I don’t remember the pain and frustration of being called out, but I do remember the enormous satisfaction of watching the helicopter return to the air to complete the mission after a maintenance issue. And I will always remember the night when a tall can of Off mosquito spray was added to my essential tools list.

About the author: Mark Tyler dedicated the majority of his career serving the helicopter EMS community from Base Mechanic to Director of Maintenance. As Vice President & General Manager of Precision Aircraft Services, Mark now serves helicopter operators from many sectors to include Air Ambulance, Law Enforcement, Private Owners, etc. When not at work, Mark can be found spending time with his family or sitting in a tree stand.

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