Some senior aircraft mechanics snickered. Written exams
might be all right for clerks, they said, but a good mechanic could tell you
what ailed an engine just by listening to it, and then could fix it with his
pen knife, if he had to. You couldn't measure that kind of knowledge with
The Air Force lost some grizzled old
"knuckle-busters" in the process, but the SKTs became a permanent
institution. It was time. Engines and aircraft systems were getting too
complicated to trust to instinct. The old-timers indeed might have been able to
diagnose an engine by its sound, but future ground crews would shut out the
roar with earplugs and study the blips on monitors.
The old breed of wrench-benders may have gone the way of
wire wheels and wooden props, but even in an era of computerized systems and
exotic building materials, their legacy remains.
In the beginning, of course, all aircraft mechanics were
civilians. The first worthy of the name probably were the Wright brothers.
They made their own airframes and engines and fussed over both like mother
hens. When they brought their machine to Washington to show it to the Army in
1908, a young lieutenant named Benjamin Foulois told them he had read a lot
about flying. Wilbur Wright told him to forget the books and get acquainted
with the machine itself. Foulois put on his coveralls, grabbed some tools, and
followed Wright's advice. Remembered as a pilot and later as Chief of the Air
Corps, Foulois probably was also the Air Force's first airplane mechanic.
By 1909, the Army had bought one flying machine, and the
Wrights had taught three officers to fly it. Foulois was the only one still on
aviation duty and the least trained of the trio, but after less than an hour's
instruction, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas with orders to take
plenty of spare parts and to teach himself to fly. He was given a voucher for
$150 (to maintain the machine for a year) and eight enlisted men to help.
Four of the soldiers had some experience with aviation.
They had served briefly on the ground crew of the Army's first dirigible. The
four—Sgts. Herbert Marcus and Steven Idzorek and Cpls. Vernon Burge and Glen
Modale—would later be among the first men officially rated as "aviation
mechanicians." At Fort Sam, however, they learned their skills largely on
the job under Foulois and Oliver G. Simmons, the Army's first civilian airplane
Help from the
With the help of the post blacksmith, tailor, and plumber,
the embryonic air force kept its machine flying and even made some improvements.
Simmons and Modale got rid of the Wrights's cumbersome catapult and monorail
launching system by adapting the wheels of a cultivator into a tricycle landing
gear. The post saddlery shop fitted the machine with a seat belt so Foulois wouldn't
be thrown out on rough landings.
As best it could, the crew modernized the plane by
incorporating changes that the Wrights were making in their newer models. When
his $150 maintenance allowance ran out, Foulois dug into his own pocket to pay
for repairs. Even so, by 1911, the plane was in bad shape. While Congress
debated the possibility of replacing it, publisher Robert J. Collier bought a
new Wright Type B and lent it to the Army.
When the new machine arrived, so did one of the Wrights' own
pilots, Phillip O. Parmalee. It was to become common practice for both the
Wrights and pioneer aircraft designer and builder Glenn Curtiss to provide a
"company man" with each new machine, to teach the pilots how to fly
it and help the ground crews maintain it. In effect, these were the first
By now, eighteen young officers had volunteered for flight
training, and the Army decided it was time to set up a permanent school. All
flying was halted at Fort Sam, and, in the summer of 1911, planes, pilots,
students, and enlisted mechanics were sent to College Park, Md. Oliver Simmons
had resigned in order to work for Robert Collier, and the Army hired Henry S.
Molineau to replace him. Molineau would be the only civilian mechanic at the
school for the next two years. By June 1911, however, he had fifteen enlisted
men to help him, and by that November the number had risen to thirty-nine.
That same year, the Army adopted the pilot test used by the
civilian Aero Club of America. The main requirement was completion of three
closed-circuit flights of five kilometers each. There still was no specific
test for mechanics, and their training was still obtained largely on the job.
The Toll Mounts
When the weather turned bad at College Park, the Army opened
a winter school at Augusta, Ga., and included ground school classes for pilots
in telegraphy, gasoline engines, and airplane structures. Even this much
formal training might not have been scheduled if the weather had not turned
sour in Augusta too. In any case, the training took place in the classroom and
did not include the hands-on experience pilots really needed. Their scant
knowledge of airframes and engines cost the Army both men and machines.
But change was coming. By 1912, the Army opened another
flying school in San Diego, where civilian instructors taught not only flying
but also repair of planes and engines.
Still, the death toll among pilots mounted. Of the
forty-eight officers detailed to aviation since 1908, eleven had died in
crashes by the end of 1913. Outdated planes, inadequate maintenance, and pilot
inexperience were blamed. The following year, Grover Loening, who had been
engineer and general manager for the Wrights, was made aeronautical engineer
of the Signal Service and sent to San Diego to overhaul the Army's aging
While Loening's extensive modifications made the planes
more airworthy, his department did little actual repair work. To fill the
gap, Cpl. A. D. Smith and other enlisted men set up a repair shop and began to
overhaul fuselages and wing sections that had previously been sent back to the
factory for repair. As the shop grew, it developed separate departments.
Mechanics who had been jacks-of-all-trades began to specialize. Corporal Smith
and Pvt. Gordon Smith repaired fabrics and fuselages. A private named Kuhn was
in charge of woodwork, and a civilian named Semeniouk made metal fittings.
Maintenance training expanded, too.
In January 1914, the Army adopted tough new criteria for aviator
ratings, including a test on engine operation and repair. The requirement
applied not to mechanics but to pilots. Foulois, sent to San Diego as a
troubleshooter, put the student officers in coveralls and, just as the Wrights
had told him, told the students to go into the shops and learn something about
their planes. That June, Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison recommended that
aviation officers be sent to airplane factories and that none be licensed until
they had mastered the principles of construction.
By then, too, the Army finally had seen the need to develop
a corps of skilled mechanics. Earlier, most enlisted men detailed to aviation
had been raw recruits who spent as much time putting up new buildings as doing
technical work. In the autumn of 1914, the San Diego school asked that only
line Army men with an aptitude for mechanics be sent there. The Army
transferred forty-four such men. That December, it adopted the examination for
the rating of aviation mechanician. Among the first to pass were Marcus, Idzorek,
Modale, and Burge—four of Foulois's original crew of eight. By then, Burge was
a pilot and Marcus was in flight training. Both would be commissioned in World
A few months before the US entered the war, the Army had
sketched plans to build up to thirteen squadrons of twelve planes each by the
end of the year. Since planes were expected to wear out in three months of
wartime conditions, each squadron would use up forty-eight per year. The life
of an engine was figured at about 300 hours, and several engines, costing about
$50 per horsepower, would be needed for each plane. By that prewar estimate,
five trained men would be needed for each machine.
The Plan Meets
In fact, the United States faced World War I with less of
everything. The Army had acquired 224 planes since 1909, but few were still in
commission. All those remaining were trainers, and most of them were obsolete.
It had 131 aviation officers, including recalled reservists and retirees. Of
these, fifty-six were pilots and fifty-one were student pilots. There were just
over 1,000 enlisted men.
When the US finally declared war, there was no lack of eager
volunteers for the glamorous new field of aviation, but trained resources were
in short supply. Both pilots and mechanics were sent overseas with minimal
training to learn on the job from the French and British. Shortages of parts
and tools were epidemic. Mechanics turned bronze shafting into bearings and
used wood from packing crates to patch fuselages.
An added problem was the fact that French planes and motors
were not standardized, so parts from one often did not fit another. Spruce, the
preferred wood for fuselages, became scarce, and fir was substituted. Doped
cotton replaced linen for wing and fuselage covering.
The US had no combat aircraft of its own design, but it
produced parts for foreign planes and shipped them to Europe for assembly.
Since few male mechanics could be spared from the combat units, more than 400
women were recruited to work in the assembly plants.
By war's end, the Army had built a sizable force, but it
demobilized quickly when the Armistice was signed. The Air Service launched a
running public-relations effort to educate the public to the potential of
airpower. Lts. John Macready and Oakley Kelly flew coast-to-coast nonstop in
May 1923 in an Army T-2 transport. The following year, four Douglas World
Cruisers started out to circle the earth; two made it. Army pilots such as Lt.
James Doolittle snatched speed records from foreign flyers. In 1929, Maj. Carl
Spaatz and a crew of four kept the Question Mark aloft over Los Angeles for
almost a week with aerial refueling. In a less subtle demonstration of
aviation's possibilities, Brig. Gen. William Mitchell showed the Navy what
bombers could do to a collection of captured German vessels and obsolete US
The heroes of this "Golden Age of Aviation" were
the pilots. But behind the flyers were ground crews of overworked, underpaid
enlisted men who kept the planes flying as they had done through the first
years of flying. When the Army was drafted to fly the mail, ground crewmen
shared the pilots' hardships, often sleeping in hangars and repairing the
planes in cold, stormy weather with inadequate tools.
When the Air Corps was established in 1926, enlisted
strength was authorized to increase from 8,342 to 14,582, but funds were so
limited that the buildup had to be spread over five years. The country entered
World War II with shortages of everything, including skilled mechanics.
Mechanics in the Big
When the newly created Army Air Forces finally began to
expand in 1941, growth was phenomenal. Strength increased from barely 150,000
to more than 2,000,000 within two years. Flight schools sprouted all over the
country, and technical training expanded to match. By now, the Army was training
mechanics not only for ground crews but also as members of flight crews on its
larger bombers. The B-24 had a flight engineer to troubleshoot fuel,
electrical, and hydraulic systems. He was the ranking enlisted man on the crew
and, in addition to being a mechanic, served as a turret gunner.
The flight engineer's position gained importance late in the
war, when the B-29 went into action in the Pacific. From a separate crew
position, the engineer monitored the plane's systems and even controlled
engine settings for the pilot. This trend reached its peak in the postwar B-36.
Its crew of fifteen included flight engineers who ran the equivalent of a
ship's engine room. Some futurists speculated that the next generation of
bombers would be the aerial equivalents of naval vessels. They pictured
aircraft commanders as simply giving orders from the "bridge" while
specialists did the steering, manned the guns, operated the engines, and maintained
As it turned out, the B-36 was to be the last of the
big-crew bombers. The sleek new jets had no cavernous hulls through which a
mechanic could roam with wrench and screwdriver to fix an ailing component.
Nor was there the need. Technology had produced black boxes that could monitor
the systems, detect trouble, and even correct minor malfunctions. Such
electronic troubleshooters weighed less than human mechanics.
Flight engineers still serve on some transports, but
technological advances are breathing down their necks as well. In the C-17, the
flight engineer will be eliminated on most flights. Even on older transports,
electronic devices now monitor subsystems, diagnose malfunctions, and even
advise the pilots on the best power settings.
If the days of the flying mechanic seem numbered, however,
the era of ground maintenance is healthy and growing. Its history is one of
ever-increasing specialization. It began in those days before World War I when
the largely self-taught enlisted men began to concentrate on specific types of
work: some on fixing engines, some on repairing airframes, some on mending
fabrics. By World War II, the specialists included armorers, metalworkers,
instrument repairmen, and the forerunners of today's avionics technicians.
Today, the charts of airman specialty codes are as
cluttered as a plane's circuit boards. Ben Foulois's crewmen would recognize
the engine mechanic and the airframe repair specialist, but they would be
amazed to find whole armies of airmen specializing in such fields as
life-support systems, metals processing, electrical systems, pneudraulics,
egress, and fuels. They would be even more baffled to find airmen whose sole
job is to maintain the ground support equipment used to test the systems that
keep the planes flying.
The proliferation of specialties has changed even the
structure of the maintenance operation. Through World War II, each plane
usually had its own ground crew chief and a handful of mechanics.
Armorers, instrument repairmen, and a few other specialists
were consolidated at squadron or group levels. In the postwar demobilization,
this approach no longer seemed cost-effective. Much maintenance was
consolidated at base levels, and neither flight crews nor ground crews
"owned" individual aircraft. Sprawling shops and depots did much of
the work that had been done on the line. Maintenance specialties were divided
and subdivided into increasingly narrower skills.
Recently there has been an effort to reverse this trend, to
combine similar specialties and bring maintenance closer to unit level,
particularly in such highly mobile commands as TAC. Such moves would not only
provide more versatile maintenance personnel, some officials argue, but would
help recapture the unit spirit that existed when air and ground crews had a
common interest in individual aircraft.
It's unlikely that the Air Force will ever recapture the
mood of a World War II flight line, much less the kind of learning experience
Foulois and his eight troops received at San Antonio. Still, the challenge of
fixing the machines and keeping them going remains much the same. The spirit of
today's jet mechanic echoes that of his professional forebears in more ways
than one might expect.
The similarity came through in a recent interview with SSgt.
John M. Davis at Chanute AFB, Ill. Now a jet engine maintenance instructor at
Chanute's technical training center, Davis spent seven years on the line at
Edwards AFB, Calif., and later at Tyndall AFB, Ha. He was asked what was the
worst aircraft he ever worked on.
"I guess it was the F-4," he said. "When I
first started working on it, I hated it. Then I made up my mind that this thing
was trying to kick my butt, and I was going to win. Then it was a challenge. I
ended up actually enjoying working on F-4s. Every time I got a new job, it was
'All right. I haven't done this. It's time to try it and see who's going to win
here.' I was going to win."
In different words and in a far different time, one of
Foulois's eight soldiers might have said much the same thing about the
cantankerous Wright machine that struggled skyward from the parade ground at
A World War II B-24
bombardier, Bruce D. Callander was recalled to active duty during the Korean
War. Between tours of active duty, he earned a B.A. in journalism at the
University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, becoming Editor in
1972. Mr. Callander has written many articles for AIR FORCE Magazine, including
"Apprentices With a Difference" and "It Isn't Over 'Til It's
Over" in the December '88 issue.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag