Dirty Hands and Broken Backs

It started with a puff of smoke.  The port engine was failing.  The pilot noticed its oil pressure dropping, temperature rising and rpm fluctuating.   The engine was in danger of destroying itself and taking the aircraft down with it; the plane rolled violently to the left.

It was a textbook display of asymmetric thrust, a twisting torque aggravated by one good engine overpowering the useless weight of a dead one.  It nearly flipped the plane on its back.  Nose down, steeply banked, airspeed increasing, the plane was entering a spiral dive.  The pilot pulled back power on the good engine, applied full right aileron and rudder, straightened out the aircraft, then cursed for not recognizing the problem sooner and letting the plane get ahead of him.  He had lost 2,000 feet in a matter of seconds.

Unfortunately, the left engine’s unfeathered propeller was windmilling, inducing more drag.  So – even with full power on the good engine – the best the pilot could hope for was a shallow glide to a safe landing spot.

The cutover terrain was inhospitable, although a network of cutlines and skidder tracks sprawled below.  The pilot’s decision to land was not his to make – a road for a runway was his only choice.

Ahead lay a ribbon of gravel that meandered endlessly into the horizon.  This potential landing site was edged periodically with clearings for

cordwood and wide enough for two fully loaded logging trucks to pass one another.  A straight in, gradual approach would be the best way to reach it.  This was the pilot’s first real forced landing and he was confident of making it down safely.  But it wouldn’t be easy. The left engine’s prop continued to turn as if disconnected from the crankshaft.  Would the runaway propeller break away and take the engine with it?  He had to get down in a hurry.

The plane was losing altitude at 300 feet per minute.  The pilot gradually throttled back the starboard engine, watched the change in rate of descent, and minimized his corrections to maintain a smooth glide. He’d touchdown with partial power, holding the nose wheel off as long as possible in case the gravel road was soft. Sweat was dripping into his eyes.  His palms were soaked.  He became conscious of drops of perspiration rolling down his back.

Skylines of poplars flashed by on both sides of the road. And despite his temptation to avoid potholes and ruts, the pilot knew he had to land in the middle of the road.  Both main wheels touched down simultaneously, followed by the nose wheel, which bottomed out with a bang due to a crown in the road.  The pilot shut down the engine, and coasted the aircraft to a stop, in front of a pile of pulp logs.

Silence permeated the aircraft.  The left engine’s prop was still spinning.  Suddenly he remembered his two passengers in the back of the plane.

He had ignored them throughout the ordeal.  One of them was a postmaster and the other, as far as he knew, was an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME) of some sort.  He forgot to instruct them to brace for a forced landing but everyone was safe and the aircraft was in one piece.  The pilot apologized for his oversight, then repeatedly tried to summon help on the radio.

There was no response.

And as he called, he heard growing noises outside the cockpit. Swarming mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums were throwing themselves against the windows to get at the bodies inside.  Their humming, buzzing and pattering against the fuselage were deafening.  The pilot wondered how long it would be before someone would arrive to rescue him and his passengers from this entomological hell.  Looking through the shifting layers of flies, the bolts of stacked pulpwood in front of him caught his attention.

They were grey and weathered indicating an old pile that had been abandoned for some time.  Maybe the logging road was decommissioned? Bear scat, tinged blue, was everywhere; further evidence that the cutover was old, sprouting an annual growth of blueberries amongst the decaying slash.  It was beginning to grow hot inside the cabin.  Their immediate alternatives looked bleak.  And then the clanking started.

Without saying a word, the mechanic rummaged through a toolbox, opened the cabin door and vacated the aircraft.  The pilot was amazed but held out little hope that the technician could manage any repairs.  How could this guy, with only a handful of rudimentary tools, fix a high performance twin in such austere conditions; but what did they have to lose?  The pilot and the postmaster looked on bewildered.

The mechanic was a short man who walked with a limp.  His torso was contorted as if he’d suffered some kind of industrial accident that ruined his back.  His hands were large, cracked, callused and the tips of his fingernails, like many hard-working tradesmen, were black.  But despite his deformities, the man had the engine cowling off in seconds and went straight to work on the failed engine.

The flies were merciless.  The AME was smothered by the flying hoards of bugs.  Every inch of his exposed skin was attacked.  He didn’t flinch or even bother to brush the bloodthirsty marauders away.  Softer parts of open flesh, the back of his neck and wrists, began to swell from the unrelenting insect bites.  They even managed to get inside his coveralls.  The corners of his eyes – prime areas of nourishment – were ravaged.  Small droplets of blood excited the bugs into a feeding frenzy.  Although the pilot and postmaster tried to help, they were repeatedly forced back to the safety of the plane’s cabin by the clouds of insects.

Hours passed.  Exhausted, the AME turned in for the night without a whimper.

At first light the pilot and postmaster were awakened by the unmistakable clatter of the mechanic’s travails. He continued his pace into the afternoon without rest, oblivious to the onslaught of proboscises sucking his blood.

And then an overwhelming revelation, from skepticism to admiration, crystallized in the pilot’s mind.

He began to see the devotion and dedication of the engineering artisan’s kind in maintaining planes.  The aviator rarely, bothered to think about the people who fixed the aircraft he flew, except to report mechanical snags. But the bottom line was – he wouldn’t be flying at all if it weren’t for the stalwart-like genius of AMEs.

Oh sure, he heard stories about them working in the bush in freezing weather to keep old bush planes flying … but that was then, when sullied hands and strong backs were the tools of the trade.  Modern aviation required computers and special instruments that diagnosed problems and made the job easier. But he couldn’t have been more wrong or too flippant in dismissing the mechanic’s ingenuity in working miracles with the most basic tools. The Engineer’s  physical handicaps meant little to the task at hand – they were poor measures of the man’s heart and intellect. The pilot could see it in the AME’s eyes when, without giving a hint of finishing, he closed the cowling, wiped his sweating brow, then simply stared at the pilot.

The maintenance engineer was a rock, although a twisted one with a deformed spine.  His hands and face displayed the disfiguring effects of hematoma, most likely brought on by the continuous exposure to biting insects.  He raised a grease-stained hand and for the first time squashed a squadron of mosquitoes feeding on his neck.  After picking up his tools, he cleaned the cowling of handprints, something engrained in his behaviour from thousands of jobs before.  That one action from the AME struck the pilot like a hammer hitting an anvil – the engine problem was fixed.

The pilot and the postmaster were speechless.  Entering the aircraft the old mechanic spoke for the first time since they were forced down.

“Start it up and let’s go home,” he mumbled.  “I’m tired.”

It was now the pilot’s turn to work his magic.  A thorough, although uncomfortable, walk-around and runway inspection was in order.  Once satisfied, the pilot prepped his passengers for departure.  The rest was poetry in motion.  Switches, rockers, levers, dials and hand wheels were set.  He had complete confidence in the mechanic.

Holding his breath, the pilot cupped the key, switched the magnetos on BOTH and looked back at the AME.

They shared a look, then the pilot pressed the button and the starter began to engage.

The left engine coughed into life without hesitation, all critical engine gauges indicating a sound power plant.  And that moment galvanized the symbiotic relationship between two professionals.

The mechanic now entrusted the aviator with his life.

The twin skimmed the tops of the seed trees; its three wheels retracting independently as the pilot picked up precious airspeed.

Heading for home, he looked back at his passengers and then smiled.  One of them, the one with the dirty hands and the broken back, was fast asleep; lulled to rest no doubt, by the hypnotic roar of his healthy engine.

About Paul Tomascik

Paul Tomascik is a commercial pilot who makes his home in Ottawa Canada. His aviation career was built on remote sensing in the natural resource sector. Currently, he has his own consulting practice (http://www.tomascikmarketing.ca). He also writes and illustrates fictional and true aviation adventure stories and has regularly contributed his work for publication.

One Comment

  1. Thank you so much this article Paul! It is so honest… so true of most of the A.M.E.’s I’ve known in the 25+ years in aviation mtce. Real passion for flight! Thanks again. Dan Goodeve. A.M.E. M1 M2

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