Check the oil ... and the avionics package

By Ed Brock

For Torrance Brooks, changing the tire on a four-ton Boeing 777 jetliner is the easiest part of his workday.

Or to be more precise, it's the easiest part of 27-year-old Brooks' work-night as a line mechanic for Delta Airlines. Brooks and the other line mechanics are the people Delta pilots call when something large or small breaks on their incredibly complicated flying machines while the jets are parked at the gate, usually full of anxious passengers.

"Wherever they can park the airplane, that's where we go," Brooks said.

Born in Ozark, Alabama, and now living in Jonesboro, Brooks' interest in mechanics started at an early age.

"When I was younger I liked to take things apart and put them back together and see how they worked," Brooks said.

Most of the time the rebuilt gadgets worked well, but there was the incident with the radio.

"I took it apart and tried to work on it and it's not worked since," Brooks said.

A two-year course at Alabama Aviation and Technical College in Ozark refined Brooks' skills, and he is now working on a Bachelor of Science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona through a correspondence course.

He started his career on the line six years ago with Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a Delta Connection air line, and has worked for Delta for the last four years.

Delta employs a total of 1,180 line mechanics as well as about 3,200 base and engine maintenance mechanics. Brooks' team can handle 20 to 25 planes a night, and he personally averages two plans a night. The jobs vary in complexity.

Changing an airplane tire can take about 15 minutes, while running a "low order check" (changing the oil and performing other routine maintenance tasks) can take around four hours.

"But you can go up to turning it over to the day shift to finish it off," Brooks said.

With the exception of the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, which has tires that are almost shoulder high, the tires on many of the planes Brooks works on are not much bigger than a truck tire. Changing them is relatively simple.

Changing the engines is a little more complicated. Each engine has to be replaced after a certain number of cycles, a cycle being composed of one take off and one landing. The engineering of the airplane allows a four-person team to open the cowling, or covering of the engine, and essentially unplug the old engine and plug in the new one.

"If we don't have any problems you can drop it and change it in an eight hour shift," Brooks said.

Each engine has to be inspected and Delta does its own maintenance the engines of most of its planes onsite at the air line's facilities at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Delta spokesman Anthony Black said. The Rolls-Royce engines on the 777 are sent out for maintenance because Delta only operates eight of those aircraft.

But the really hard job is maintaining the avionics systems on the planes, including radar, navigation and communication systems.

"As you can imagine there are a whole lot of wires on the airplane," Brooks said. "It's a job in itself."

For anybody who might be concerned, Brooks said all modern airplanes are designed with redundant systems so if, for example, the auto-pilot goes out there are usually at least two backups. The planes are even designed to fly on one engine if need be, Black said.

With a tight schedule to keep and planeloads of customers who expect to get where they're going on time, Delta pilots like 45-year-old Capt. Bob Held depend on line mechanics like Brooks.

A 16-year Delta veteran, Held recalled a time when he discovered a problem with an oil pressure transmitter during pre-flight operations. He called in the line mechanics and went out on the runway to watch them work.

"I remember just standing out there in wonder while they were up in there sweating away," Held said.

On another occasion Held's plane had a malfunction that required a specialist that was not available at the airport where he was. A line mechanic who was a passenger on the plane volunteered to go out and help.

"That's the kind of standard operating procedure we see at Delta," Held said.

Brooks often gets to fly, for business and pleasure, on the planes that he maintains, but he's more comfortable dealing with them on the ground.

"I never really liked flying," Brooks said. "I work on airplanes but it took me a while to get used to flying."