Flying Above All………….

Field Repairs

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Temperatures are approaching 90. Humidity is up to 30%. (Mississippi would be jealous). We’ve done the dance of “we’re going….no we’re not”, so the morning is about normal. Normal “go to the grocery store to get something for lunch” (no cafeterias, no restaurants out here at the tanker base), normal preflight, set up for a dispatch…and read the paper. I have developed a comfort with the routine.


A few days ago we landed the Baron at “a medium sized city”. Class C airspace, for those of you who are aware of such things.  The arrival was kind of different, as we kept getting vectored to follow slower and slower planes. “Baron, slow down, turn 30 degrees left, following a Cherokee on 6 mile final”. Okay…a bit unusual, but then he adds a Cessna 172 in the line in front of us. I’m starting to think they can detect that “you ain’t from around here, are you?”


No dispatch for us those days, so had a few days to spend, but on a “30 minute call back” time frame. One of our driver/loaders was carefully inspecting one of the planes, and found a crack in the cowl. That gave us a perfect reason to “stop-drill” the crack. (“stop-drilling” is a process by which a small hole is made at the end of the crack, to prevent further propagation of the crack. It relieves the stress on the piece of metal, and is an FAA acceptable method in many locations).


Looking at the crack, we decided to pull the cowl, and inspect beneath it…and found that the bracket to which the cowling attached, had also cracked. Options were discussed. A large, highly efficient repair shop was in the vicinity….and looked to be building a jet from a box of parts. Clearly they could repair it, but I suspected the cost would be something that would buy a good used car.


Since no fires were looming, but we had the possibility of a dispatch order, I didn’t want to take the plane out of service. I did a wallet biopsy, and found that I still had my A&P/IA ticket. However, that still left the question of “tools”, “parts”, “rivets”, and such. The rest of the guys on the team got that funny look on their face.


I meandered over to the large shop which was rebuilding the jet. One of my fellow pilots walked along with me, thinking he’d have a great story to tell about how we got thrown out of said shop. Heck, we’ve been tossed out of a couple different places on this trip, but that’s for another story.


Taking a view of the shop, there wasn’t just a jet being rebuilt. There were at least three turboprops in various stages of dismemberment around the hangar. It was spotless, all the guys had matching uniforms which appeared to have been laundered this very morning. (You have to understand, most shops have mechanics working whose “uniforms” consist of a shirt that comes from one of their last three jobs, blue jeans, and mismatched tennis shoes). I chose my victim.


I approached a rather large gentleman, who had “Tom” stitched above his right pocket. My Fellow Pilot (MFP) was watching closely….


I decided that “straight-forward” was the best approach. Introduced myself, told him I needed to repair a cracked mount, wanted to make a doubler, rivet it in place with Cherry-max rivets, and we’d be good. Silence ensued. He asked the obvious…”you have any tools?”. Heh. I answered that I’d need to borrow tools, make the part, borrow the rivet puller, etc.


I’ve stood before judges before. Tom’s stone face gave no hint of his thought process. (You need to understand…asking anyone to borrow tools is a big deal. A true craftsman is very reluctant to let some ham-hand borrow them. Someone who is highly obsessive is even more reluctant. I had noticed that Tom had a work bench that rivaled an operating room for cleanliness, and was organized to the point that all drawers were labeled, tools had cutouts in each drawer, and Tom was very precise. This isn’t boding well, as I’m in shorts, a shirt that looks like it belongs on a fishing boat, and tennis shoes with holes in them).


Tom smiles, says “okay”.   Whew. With that, I borrow an engineers’ rule (not a silly old tape measure, or a kids ruler. An Engineer’s rule.) I make notes, measurements, plan my rivet placement. MFP says “ain’t no way that you’re gonna make that work”. I have doubts myself, but due to the location of the crack, and the fact that I may be flying that plane, fixing it is the best option. “Broke”, and “airplane”, are two words that you don’t want to hear along with the third word…. “flying”.


An “L” shaped doubler is fashioned. Further tools, including a lovely countersink are borrowed. (All this time you thought “counter sink” is where you wash dishes? Nope. It’s a really nice type of drill bit that makes an angled entry into a rivet hole, allowing a flush mounted rivet to be placed so that the surface remains flat). I didn’t have Clecos (and wasn’t going to push my luck that far), so I did it like my dad taught me….hold it, drill it, rivet it, wash, rinse, repeat. Did really well until I got on the second half of the “L”. I got an aggravating little burr between the (partially riveted) ”L” and the bracket I was repairing. No deburring tool is going to work here….except…my handy pocket deburring tool. You know, the one also known as a “knife”.


Dad had a knife. Always. His knife was a simple two blade affair. No locking blades. Always kept sharp (my son used Grandad’s knife sharpening technique as an illustration in a conversation yesterday). That knife was used for everything from fingernail cleaning, to wood planing, to opening oil cans. Opening oil cans was an art form. Remember when “oil cans” really were cans? Round, held a quart. The service station would use a device that opened the can, and had a spout. Dad? Nope, he used his knife. He’d stand the knife on end, angled slightly, hold with one hand, and hit with the other. A cut would appear, and he’d make another angled cut which would match. The process would be repeated on the other side of the can, making a smaller “vee”. Now the oil could be poured through a funnel made with the box the oil came in, (yes, cut with the same knife).


When I would try this, at least half the time the knife would fold, with predictable results. Sometimes the oil can would fall over, usually after at least one opening was made, with oil going everywhere. Dad would laugh, demonstrate the technique again, and eventually the oil got to the right place.


With my left thumb, I held the “L” away from the bracket. I used my “pocket deburring tool” (AKA, knife) to deburr a couple holes. It worked wonderfully well. I was just about done, when the last burr gave way, and the sharp (at least I learned that part) knife came right down on the space holder….my thumb.



It’s true that deep cuts often are painless. The first sign I had of trouble was the dripping red on the nice white cowling. Now, we had to fabricate a thumb patch. That was done with a roll of tape, and the riveting was finished handily. Well, one hand and a few extra fingers. Didn’t really have both hands….



Tools were returned, and we asked Tom for a bill. He smiled, said “no charge”. I began to suspect that not only had he loaned me tools, but probably broke two or three company rules. I left him enough cash to take his wife to lunch, hoping that at least made up for part of it.



MFP asked “how did you get him to loan you the stuff? Do you guys have a password or something? I figured he’d throw you out….”


I smiled, said “I spoke the secret mechanic code”

Author: planedoc

Having survived the medical world for a few decades, I'm pursuing flight, firefighting, wrench turning, and enjoying my family. I have a passion for "warbirds" specifically the P51 and T-6, the Corsair, and do airshows in those planes. I fly "The Mighty 802" fighting wildfires, and have a great time in my SX and Husky. Oh, yeah, I occasionally show up at the hospital and pass gas.

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