A Day In The Life Of A Private Jet Doctor

It was a Tuesday, just shy of 5 pm.  I had arrived at the office around four o’clock for my ten hour shift to find the aircraft organizer—the file rack on which we kept work orders for each aircraft—virtually empty.  This was no surprise; when you work at an international airport outside of Washington, D.C. and Congress is not yet back in session, the workload lightens considerably.  Oh yes, Congress uses private jets.  Plenty of them.

            While we were assessing the work we had and organizing ourselves for the evening, our shift supervisor—who fields all calls and emails for new work–received three calls in rapid succession.  All of them were road trips.  One was a Learjet 31 that needed a horizontal stabilizer trim actuator (or “stab actuator”, for short) removed and replaced, one a Cessna Citation XLS with weak emergency power supplies and a failing inverter, and the final one was a Falcon 2000 with a landing light out, and requiring a Flight Management System (or, FMS) update—due monthly. 

            After investigating each case, we found that the Falcon was the prize pony, in this case—we keep updated sets of FMS databases handy, and we had a spare landing light bulb in stock. 

I volunteered to go, since I like the variety that road trips have to offer.  Typically, there are pros and cons to a road trip:  On the “Con” side, you’re working out of a box of your own tools, which typically in no way represents the actual amount of tools you have. It can become frustrating to get stalled during a job because you didn’t bring a tool that you already own, but did not know you would need.  If you should ever wonder why an aircraft mechanic has duplicates of some tools, this is surely part of the answer.  Another con is that you’re away from home, and typically on somebody’s ramp out in the middle of nowhere.  This is not a problem on a sunny, 70-degree day, but my shift has us working at night.  Out on the ramp when it’s pitch black and 25 degrees, the wind is gusting to fifty miles an hour, and you can’t complete your job without taking your fingers out of their gloves, it’s pretty much as close to hell as anything at one o’clock in the morning.

In my opinion, the pros of a road trip are simple:  I see places I likely would never have seen otherwise, and I have absolutely no problem getting paid time-and-a-half to sit in rush hour traffic—which invariably happens on an overnight road trip, since I’m usually heading back into the DC area around sun-up. 

I dispatched to Richmond, VA just as the sun was going down, and just in time to sit in evening rush-hour traffic, as I made my way down I-495 to I-95.  Three hours later, I pulled up to the airport, and fired up the aircraft’s Auxiliary Power Unit (or APU).  If it weren’t for the APU, this trip would be far more miserable.  The APU is an extra turbine engine on the aircraft whose only purpose in life is to provide electricity and warm or cool air for the aircraft when the engines aren’t running.

I made quick time of replacing the light bulb—it wasn’t getting any warmer, after all–and began loading the FMS update, one 3.5 inch floppy-that-isn’t-really-floppy at a time.  (The FMS disks update the system’s “knowledge” of every departure, approach, and GPS location of every airport on the planet.)  It took nearly an hour and a half, but as I sat in the pilot’s seat, monitoring the system’s progress, I couldn’t help but reaffirm my belief that the pilots have the best view in the house.  I imagined myself at 36,000 feet, over a landscape that is completely dark except for the lights of whatever city I can see from my perch…I imagined that I’d be monitoring exactly the same computer-screened instrument displays that I had to monitor at that moment…

And all at once, the aircraft finished reading and declared itself smart enough to fly for one more month. 

I systematically shut-down the avionics, the APU, and the aircraft’s batteries.  I took the aircraft’s logbook inside the airport terminal to finish up the paperwork and fax it off to Maintenance Control, and loaded the truck for the trip home.  I normally get off at 2 a.m., but I didn’t walk in the front door of my house until 8:30.  Rush hour was pretty bad that morning…just the way I like it.

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