Sunday, July 20, 2008

Still on the Golf Course

The airplane should be leaving today, and the boss wants me to help with the work however I can. So I check out of the hotel and come to see what I can do, even though I'm fairly certain that "stay out of the way and stop bugging us" is my major contribution.

Item number forty-three on the big list is a frayed elevator trim cable. That definitely needs replacing, and they'll have to get the part. I have opened a company account with the local parts supplier so they can get what they need, and am trying to stay within earshot but out of tripping distance, in case they do find a use for me.

I've found a job for myself. One of the aircraft propellers was replaced, and the old one needs to go back to Canada. The packaging material for the new one is still on the floor here, so I'll use it to package it up and arrange for shipping. Now this propeller is an eighty pound object, that includes not only three long metal blades but a hub that protrudes almost a foot up and down from the plane of the blades. At the moment the propeller is resting on a bucket, to let the oil drain out of it. On a complex airplane the propeller is not just a twirling metal airfoil, but a twirling metal airfoil whose blade angle is automatically adjusted through a complicated arrangement of counterweights, springs, valves and oil pressure. I start by wiping oil off the exterior of the hub. And then I stare at the assembly.

The propeller is heavy, awkward, expensive and delicate. The packing material available includes a wooden pallet, three small aircraft tires, some polyethylene sheeting made into sleeves with cardboard tip protectors, a lot of bubble wrap, some blade-sized long thin cardboard boxes, and about a dozen polystyrene chunks: like packing peanuts, except denser and each is about the size of a rabbit. There's also a lot of plastic pallet wrap, with fragile stickers on it but that's not reusable, I'll have to get more. It's a bit like one of those wooden puzzles where you have to put all the pieces together to make a cube, but the first time you try you just get a lump with bits sticking out everywhere.

I slide the three sleeves with the cardboard tip protectors over the propeller blades, trying to imagine what they could protect against. An impact so minor that it would not just crush or tear through the cardboard probably wouldn't hurt the propeller in the first place. I borrow packing tape and wrap the blades in bubble wrap, wondering if sensitive scientific instruments could detect the miniscule amount of protection bubblewrap would afford against damage, were this twenty-thousand dollar item to be dropped, rolled, or mishandled by a forklift.

While I'm doing this, I can hear the mechanics working on my airplane, trying to get around the inevitable shipping delay in getting this cable. They have considered placarding the autopilot unserviceable ("INOP" in local parlance) and signing off the airplane to be used without the autopilot, but then they determined that the manual and electric (i.e. autopilot) trim use the same cable, so that's not possible. They will need to replace the cable. Then I hear the words "not available." I ask. That's right, this bit of wire is not available from the manufacturer. They are searching online inventories for someone else that might have one, and the words "get one fabricated" drift over to me. The cable of course has a part number, lets call it 34876-7B. It does end in "dash seven bravo," but I made the rest up. I dash off an e-mail to the Person Responsible for Maintenance back at home to see if he has one, but before he replies the parts guy here announces his triumph. He's found one; they're shipping it; and it will be here by ten am tomorrow morning.

And then my PRM replies. He asks me to have them double-check that the part number is "dash seven bravo." According to his information, that cable for an airplane of our serial number is "dash seven eight." This sounds like a pretty clear transcription error: -78 versus -7B read off a sheet of microfiche or a dusty computer screen. And what's the chance that there are two similar cables, with numbers that are identical except that one ends in an eight and the other a B? How utterly would that be ASKING for trouble!

I pass on the advisory. Parts guy looks it up. My PRM is right. He's ordered the wrong cable. We need a -78 not a -7B. There is actually pretty good availablity of the -78 cable, but it's now 4:30 p.m. mountain time and phones in Florida, Chicago and Texas are ringing through to after hours answering machines. Surely there's something in California? Nothing. Seattle? No. He finds one in Peterborough. I shake my head "they're on Eastern Time. Maybe Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver or Regina?" Nothing.

The mechanics re-evaluate whether this airplane can be signed out with the existing cable, and return for the replacement when it arrives. They agree they would be willing to sign the airplane off for a ferry permit, just to go somewhere else to stop, but not to continue work.

I go back to my makework task, getting someone to help me lift the propeller onto a stack of tires on the pallet such that the hub is protected inside the rubber bumper. Adding the styrofoam chunks makes the whole thing look more ridiculous, but not significantly more protected. I go back to the guy in shipping who loaned me the packing tape. "I think what I need is not your packing tape but your packing expertise." He comes out to look.

"The shipping company won't even accept it like this," he says. "It sticks off the edges of the pallet." It's bigger than the pallet, so I didn't have any choice about that. He has proper propeller shippin boxes and will pack it properly in one for a couple of hundred dollars. That makes sense. I hook him up with the receiver and step out of the equation.

The parts guy then comes up to me and says something about my extended vacation in Salt Lake City. I turn to look at him, and he is holding up a plastic parts bag containing a cable. I can see the part number printed on the cardboard at the top. It ends in -78. He has the correct cable in his hand I squeal with delight (yes, literally squeal) and fling open my arms. I stopped myself just in time from throwing my arms around him to kiss him. He might not have appreciated that.

So we have all the parts, but there's too much work to be done to finish tonight. Back to the hotel I go.


Anonymous said...

Your PRM sounds like a handy guy to have on the team

Anonymous said...

In fact thinking about it a little more - and the way you write about them - your whole team sounds pretty well set up ?

Anonymous said...

You're in SLC... so is that Intermountain Piper? Those guys are great!