“We’ve all been preparing as individual teams and as one big team, so we can demonstrate how United Tech Ops is the best in the business,” said CLE Technician Jack Waldeck. “Ideally, the United teams will finish 1-2-3-4 – with CLE taking the top prize again, of course.”
This year, in addition to CLE, we are sending teams from MCO (Orlando, Florida) Line Maintenance and the “Chix Fix,” comprised of six women from DEN, LAX, ORD and SFO, to compete in the Commercial Airlines division. IAH Base Maintenance is also fielding a team in the Repair and Manufacturing division. The other four divisions are General Aviation, Military, School and Space.
In 2017, in addition to placing first among Commercial Airlines, Jack and his teammates took the AMC’s top honor, the William F. O’Brien Award for Excellence in Aircraft Maintenance. (Watch a video produced by the AMC’s main sponsor, Snap-on.)
“We were underdogs,” Jack noted. “A few other teams were, shall we say, a little upset that we won and are gunning for us this year.”
Along with being defending champions, CLE has the longest history with the event, having first fielded a team in 2008. MCO will have “home field advantage” for the second year in a row, as the event is again being held in Orlando as part of the huge MRO Americas 2018 industry conference. From the Base Maintenance organization, we typically alternate sending teams from the Houston and San Francisco complexes.
The idea for an all-women team came from Tech Ops’ Women in Aviation International (WAI participants, said SFO Airframe Repair and Overhaul Managing Director Bonnie Turner, who is captain of Chix Fix; the coaches, Supervisor Laura Spolar (MCO) and Senior Supervisor Dana Eads (DEN), also have been active for years in WAI.
“One of the best reasons to field a team of women is to encourage more women to join us in this field,” Laura said. “Someday we hope to have enough women technicians in every hub to field an all-local all-women’s team.”
“It’s been a little different for our team, since we don’t always work in the same station,” said LAX Avionics Line Technician Joanne Mulherin about the Chix Fix team. “The guys, on the other hand, are always in the same place. That’s OK with us, though; it just means we have to work harder, and we have been.”
Since the beginning of the year, the teams have spent countless hours getting ready and have held three joint team-building and practice sessions – at SFO, IAH and earlier this week at CLE. They gathered to study the event manuals and hone the skills they will need to master the 30 events they will face over three days. In some cases, they are using the same techniques on the same equipment they use regularly. For other events, they will have to apply their skills to tasks and on devices not common at United hangars.
One event involves a particular type of magneto used on light aircraft, not large jets, so an MCO team member who had access to one brought it to the group sessions. Another event involves a sophisticated troubleshooting simulator, so CLE Lead Line Technician Brian Hall contacted the manufacturer and persuaded them to bring its demo unit out to the hangar, and every team had an hour to run through the routines.
“Specialists who are the ‘go-to’ techs for certain things will always have an event or two where they’ll be able to really shine, but on a team level, the AMC requires broad knowledge of the whole field of aeronautics,” said CLE Shift Manager Russ Peterson, team captain and also the father of defending championship team member Line Technician R.J. Peterson. “We look for well-rounded technicians who are as comfortable with sheet metal as they are with advanced avionics.”
Twenty-four members of our Aircraft Recovery Team underwent three days of intensive training at IAH earlier this month and they practiced skills we hope are never required – safely removing a disabled aircraft that is blocking a runway, taxiway or ramp at an airport we serve.
The team members gathered for a day of classroom training followed by two intense days of field exercises on a remote corner of the airfield. The subject aircraft, a T-43A (modified Boeing 737-200) belongs to the Houston Police Department and is used for various drills and exercises at the airport.
Principal Line Support Engineer and Aircraft Recovery Team Leader Marc Felice said team members came from all seven hubs as well as CLE, GUM, HNL (Honolulu) and MCO (Orlando, Florida) to join others already trained in stations ranging from GRU (São Paolo) and LHR (London Heathrow) to SYD (Sydney).
Working alongside local employees and business partners, they are on call 24/7 as part of the United Emergency Response Team to handle towing, jacking and lifting aircraft that have become immobilized for various reasons – from failed supports or landing gear to slides off runways or taxiways. The complex recovery kits are kept in six locations – HNL, IAD, IAH, MCO, ORD and SFO – so are never more than a few hours away from a recovery scene.
At our IAH exercise, the teams became familiar with the various components of the recovery kit, which is treated as non-calibrated tooling, and they practiced towing an off-pavement aircraft using an emergency towing kit. These are used in situations where a conventional tow tractor or recovery vehicle is not practical.
In a simulation of a plane that landed with the nose landing gear not extended, they raised the T-43A’s forward fuselage with a sling lift and a crane, then inflated a set of airbags underneath to support it until a trolley could be moved into place to enable moving the plane.
On the second day, they performed a full lift of the entire aircraft, using sets of airbags underneath both wings and the fuselage. It’s not as simple as it sounds.
“The reason we have so many hoses going to so many airbags is that we have strict pressure limits for the fuselage and wing skin contact areas and thus need to control the pressure going into each compartment of the airbag so the plane lifts evenly and safely,” Marc explained.
“Our first priority in any recovery is – Do no harm,” Marc said. “First of all, the recovery needs to be done safely for all the people involved,” Marc said. “Also, while we need to work quickly, we need to take every step to make sure we don’t cause any secondary damage to the aircraft. Third, we need to work quickly – incidents that require recovery are extremely costly for the aircraft operator and for the airfield.”
Twice this year, our team has responded to incidents that fortunately were relatively minor. An axle collapsed on an Airbus A320 in EWR, and with the support of a local vendor we moved it from the gate to a hangar. In IAH, a wing jack failed under a Boeing 737-800 that was in for maintenance. The team used recovery airbags to free the failed jack and replace it with an operational one. Also, this year in HNL, our local team member supported Line Maintenance when a Boeing 737-900 had a tire and wheel failure during taxi.
In addition to our own recovery teams and kits, United is a member of the International Airlines Technical Pool (IATP) cooperative, which has 12 kits and “go” teams stationed around the world. We are the designated responder in HNL and conduct annual exercises as part of the IATP commitment. Coincidentally, while we were conducting our IAH training, a number of our Brazil-based employees took part in an annual IATP exercise in GIG (Rio de Janeiro) held by region recovery provider LATAM Airlines Brasil (JJ). Their kit is based in GRU; and our GRU Aircraft Maintenance Manager Jose Lisboa said our participants got invaluable experience in not only the recovery exercise itself, but also in the logistics of transporting a kit and using it in a different location.
A delegation of United Tech Ops employees, some of them graduates of the Lewis University Aviation Program, returned to campus on Oct. 12 to donate a ground power unit (GPU) that will help Lewis students prepare for careers in aviation – preferably at United.
Tactical Planning Director Craig Linkinhoker keeps close ties with Lewis, Purdue and his alma mater, Southern Illinois, representing the company during recruitment fairs and other events. While at Lewis earlier this year, Aviation Chair and Assistant Professor R. Eric Jones mentioned to Craig that the university’s aging GPU was failing.
Craig reached out to our Facilities and Ground Service Equipment Maintenance department, and they agreed that one of the GPUs scheduled for retirement could be reconditioned and given to the university.
“Lewis has long been a school that sends us qualified candidates,” Craig said. “It benefits us in the long run when their students have hands-on experience with the same equipment our technicians use every day.”
Joining Craig for the visit were several Lewis alumni: ORD Ground Service Equipment Technician-Line Anthony Bonk, Tactical Planner Matthew Copenhaver, ORD Ground Service Equipment Technician-Line John Kennedy and GSE Maintenance Operations Supervisor Doug Sobieski. Anthony and John helped get the GPU ready for Lewis and credited fellow GSE Technician Greg Roter with doing the lion’s share of preparation work on the unit.
While touring the facilities and hangar, Craig was able to visit his nephew Michael, and Doug his son Alex – both are current students who were doing hands-on coursework in the hangar at the time.
“Lewis University is a great partner for United, not only for sending us so many high-quality applicants, but also for the continuing studies programs it offers for our employees who want to keep working and still pursue a degree,” noted Tech Ops Hiring Programs Senior Manager Kim Pritchard.
Lewis Aviation Program E. Eric Jones thanked our delegation and remarked on the school’s “long and fruitful” collaboration with United. The university’s aviation facilities include a Boeing 737-200 that United donated in 1999.