Zen and the Art of Aircraft Maintenance



Pilot’s maintenance write-up:  “Something loose in the cockpit.”
Mechanic’s corrective action:  “Something tightened in the cockpit.”
If you’re any kind of aviation buff, you’ve most likely seen this and other gems in a popular email of funny aircraft maintenance write-ups.  If not, I’ll take that as an excuse to plagiarize a few more here for your pleasure.
Squawk: “Aircraft handles funny.”
Corrective Action:  “Aircraft told to straighten up, ‘fly right,’ and be serious.”
Maintenance write-ups, or “Squawks” in pilot parlance, are a daily occurrence for pilots.  When you’re trying to keep safely in the sky a man-made bird with a million parts, well, that means a million and one things can go wrong.  Fortunately, a century’s progress in aircraft design has rendered modern airliners extremely safe; failures of the catastrophic kind are nearly unheard of.  But hassles of the minor and mundane kind, the equivalent of the knob popping off the radio in your ’03 Prius, are an every day occurrence.  While you may be able to live without that knob (I’ve been using the remote control in my ’98 Celica for the past year), every single airliner’s maintenance issue, no matter how trivial, must be addressed before flight.


Squawk: “Number Three Engine missing.”
Corrective Action:  “Number Three Engine found on right wing after brief search.”
But you wouldn’t want to delay, let alone cancel, a flight for, say, a broken toilet seat.
Enter the MEL, or Minimum Equipment List.  The FAA allows airliners to hurtle through the stratosphere with myriad broken parts, such as toilet seats, until those minor bits can be fixed while overnighting at a maintenance base. 


Squawk: “Mouse in radio stack.”
Corrective Action:  “Cat installed in radio stack.”
You know how, when you take your Prius to the mechanic, that “whee whee whee” sound it was making suddenly fixes itself?  Same thing happens on a plane.  (“But I swear, Frank, that radio was going ‘screeeech!’ a minute ago!”)  There’s nothing more frustrating to a pilot than receiving as a Corrective Action:  “Could not duplicate; returned to service.”  Worse, I’ve had my share of rookie squawks based on my lack of intimate knowledge of the airplane.  (“Uh, lady, that ‘chunk chunk chunk’ you’re hearing and feeling is called a ‘flat tire’.”)  Once, fresh on the Airbus, I wrote up the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) when I couldn’t get it to start—only to find out that you had to first turn on the Batteries to help power it up.  Uh . . . duh!  Now, after over 18 years on the Bus, I’m more than comfy on “Fifi’s” flight deck, though she still finds little ways to rise up and make me humble again .  That APU write-up, for example, is not just for rookies.  Even vets fall for it from time to time, when the Starbucks across from the gate hasn’t opened yet.
Er, um. . . so I’m told…

Squawk: “Evidence of hydraulic leak on right main landing gear.”
Corrective Action:  “Evidence removed.”
For the hi-tech Airbus, 90% of my squawks are quickie fixes.  Reset a couple circuit breakers, do a quick byte test, and you’re off and running.  But little things often do have the habit of snowballing into big things.  Hence the perpetually frustrating “another ten minutes and we’ll be underway” PA you hear a dozen times before actual door close.  All we pilots know is what our mechanics tell us, so please don’t kill the messenger.  And please, please, please don’t take it out on the flight attendants, either!  They’ve had a long day, too, and wanna get there just as badly as you do.  We’re all in this boat together.
Squawk: “Dead bugs on windshield.”
Corrective Action:  “Live bugs on order.”
While we all have our airline delay horror stories, my personal record was eight hours—count ‘em, eight!—hours stuck on on the plane , doors closed, on the tarmac in EWR.*  While our original maintenance delay only put us back 30 minutes, it was just long enough to ground-stop all traffic as a slow-moving wall of thunderstorms leisurely strolled overhead.  Our flight took off four minutes before our “drop-dead” time (i.e., max legal duty time) expired.  And then came the five hour flight to LAS.

Squawk: “Test flight OK, except autoland very rough.”
Corrective Action:  “Autoland not installed on this aircraft.”
So, your ace mechanics swooped in on the plane and did their magic.  You’re all patched up and ready to launch, right?!  Well, not exactly.   Just like the picture above, no flight is ready until the paperwork is done.  While a C/B reset might take two minutes, the paperwork takes at least ten.  For, close on the heels of the airline pilot’s mantra of “Safety First,” is “Charlie Yankee Alpha—Cover Your A**.”  The FAA can smell a dubious paper trail from FL390, so it is imperative that that toilet seat’s Green Card is filled out in triplicate, “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed, signed and stamped by the mechanic, entered into the memory banks and approved by  Maintenance Control back at Company HQ, and sent via ACARS message (a fancy term for onboard email) to the cockpit.  After that, the Company dispatcher must amend the flight manifest to include the broken toilet seat, calculate its aerodynamic effects on fuel burn, and ACARS that to the cockpit as well, where it must, ultimately, be christened as safe by the Captain.  
God forbid a poor, unsuspecting passenger sit down in the lav and suffer the consequences!

Squawk: “Whining sound heard on engine shutdown.”
Corrective Action:  “Pilot removed from aircraft.”

  • Click here for more funny squawks!

*This incident took place years before the “Passenger Bill of Rights” was passed.  One poor couple onboard missed their own Vegas wedding, and sheepishly asked if the Captain of the Ship could perform the ceremony onboard.
Oh, how I wish I had!

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