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Friday, January 22, 2016

5 Lessons Aircraft Maintenance Class Taught Me About Life

Last week, I finished up yet another class in aircraft maintenance at Mount San Antonio College.  This course was "Materials and Science", and involved learning all manner of aircraft hardware, as well as material properties, and non destructive testing.

A photo posted by Jonathan Landeros (@jlanderos1973) on

Between my time of learning to identify different types of corrosion, tapping threads, and test material hardness, I had a chance to observe my fellow students, as well as reflect on how I approached and learned.  I also came to realize that my learning went beyond the syllabus of the class.

So here, in 5 bullet points, are what Aircraft Maintenance Taught Me About Life

1) Don't Forget the Details!

One of my lab exercises was making a semi rigid tube.  That meant sizing, bending, flaring, and assembling the fittings together.  The instructor made a point to say that the tubes are critical for the flares to ensuring a pressure tight seal.

I followed each of the steps carefully.  My flares were the right size, the bends were spot on.  I was feeling confident!  So with my chest puffed out in pride, I plugged it into the test rig and waited for the instructor to be impressed and proclaim me a prodigy.

The instructor pressurized it to 1000 psi, our test pressure.  He sprayed a soapy water solution to look for the dreaded bubbles that indicated a leak....  And.... bubbles....

Not a lot, but a slow and steady stream was parading out of the fitting.

The instructor pulled my tubing out of the test rig and looked into the flares.  "You need to clean those up.  I can see tool marks."  He instructed.  His experienced eye saw where the flaring tool had marked the inside of the flare.  Barely noticeable, they were causing the minor, but unacceptable leaks in my line.

So I sat the tool bench with fine grit sandpaper for 20 minutes.  I sanded until my fingers were sore, and the tips of my fingers numb.  With much less bravado, I approached the instructor and tested the tube again.

This time it passed, successfully holding 1000 psi with out a single leak!

Lesson?  Pay attention to the small, sometimes unseen details.  They can save the day when the pressure is on.

2) Don't Confuse Speed with Purpose.

There were definitely two camps in class.  There were the "fast movers", and the "slow movers".  The fast movers jumped into the projects, got their hands dirty, and got to work.

The slow movers, were a bit more cautions.  They read manuals, had discussions among themselves, and then picked up their tools.

Naturally, the "fast movers" had their projects submitted first.  But then, something interesting happened.

The "fast movers" ran into issues.  Hose fittings were over-torqued, dimensions were out of tolerance. Their progress was halted by the snapping sound of a tap breaking.

The fast movers began the process of reworking.

The "slow movers" on the other hand, while not perfect, ran into fewer mistakes, and were reworking their projects less.   Eventually, just like in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the slower group had passed the faster group.  Their diligence meant they made steady, consistent progress.

A photo posted by Jonathan Landeros (@jlanderos1973) on

Lesson?  Don't confuse activity with progress.

3) Good Students Memorize. Great Students Comprehend.

Our written tests were multiple choice, and the questions, which are defined by the FAA, are pretty standardized.  That translated into a lot of going over questions, making sure you knew all the answers.

This was another place that the class divided into two camps.

One camp would drill on the questions, they could ask a question, and another student could answer with "B", and repeat the answer word for word from the test guide.

The other camp, would study at home individually, then just before the test, review the questions, talk about the answer, and then talk about why a given answer was the correct one.

Come test time, the second group consistently scored higher.


The instructor, knowing the answers are standardized, change the wording of the question.  In turn, that could change the answer.  That drilled in and memorized answer, "B", suddenly became "A".

A photo posted by Jonathan Landeros (@jlanderos1973) on

Many of the students that didn't understand the concepts and memorized the answer missed these questions.

The students who comprehended the concepts, could read the question, understand what was being asked, and could reason the correct answer based on the question that had been asked.

Lesson?  Make sure you understand the fundamental concepts behind what you're doing.

4) Not Only Have a Plan, Have a Flexible Plan.

Our class had access to two mills for machining parts, and three drill presses.  The mills, being more precise, were coveted machines.

Naturally, students who needed them would jump on them right away, stake their claim and work on their projects for as long as they could.

That left other students out in the cold.

Clever students quickly learned that the mills would often open up near the end of class, when "there wasn't any time to complete a project".

But the clever students would start their projects during that time, and use the mill to size their project, or center drill holes that would later be drilled and tapped.

This meant when they walked into class the next day, if the mill wasn't available, they would use the drill presses to complete their work, using the previous nights precision work as guide.

A photo posted by Jonathan Landeros (@jlanderos1973) on

As a result, they were still able to make steady progress through their project, while other students were still waiting impatiently for the mill.

Lesson? Have a plan, but be willing to adjust the plan to keep your goals on track.

5)  Lessons Come from Many Places.

My instructor was fantastic.  He had over twenty years of experience, he could relate his real, practical experiences to our class, making the lessons more meaningful.  But he wasn't the only one who was teaching.

My fellow students came from all walks of life.  I was one of two with engineering degrees.  There were recent high school graduates, a machinist making a career change, and a retiree learning skills to maintain his own plane.

We were wonderfully eclectic!

Those with passion showed through.  We learned from each other.

Students who had previous experience with machining helped those who had never tapped a hole.  I learned how to hand form chromoly steel from a fellow student who'd done it before working on previous projects.

When the instructor wasn't available, the clever students found another way.  Usually by learning from each other.

Lesson?  Great Mentors are all Around You.  Find Them

To end this post, I had a great time in class.  I learned a lot about aircraft grade fasteners, fittings, materials, corrosion, and testing.

But it was also an amazing lesson in life.  Making friends, working with them, and learning them, and having an opportunity to share a few lessons myself.

Most of all, I saw what my fellow students did to be successful, and I was reminded that success is not one great act, but a series of small acts repeated every day.  It's trying, it's failing, and it's dusting yourself off and having the courage to try again.

Now if you excuse me, I have a few lessons to commit to heart, and maybe think of what my next class will be.

A photo posted by Jonathan Landeros (@jlanderos1973) on

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