Story by Satish Moka
‘Uniform’ doesn’t refer to a ‘pair of clothes of a certain color’ or ‘things of similar size’ or any of the twenty or so descriptions given in the Oxford Dictionary, in this place, it stands for P2-MFU, the venerable Twin Otter which is one of the workhorses of the MAF PNG program. If you can strain your ears and pick up those syllables, so surprisingly softly spoken in this world of steely engineers, you can hear a few more strange phrases like “fan gone U/S again in Uniform” (a malfunctioning fan in P2-MFU) or “Lima will come up by noon” (which has nothing to do with South America but our aircraft P2-MFL being handed over by the pilots for routine inspection at noon) and even simple things like “please pass me the flat and the ¾’ (a request for a flat screwdriver and a spanner of that size).
My attachment with the Engineering Department, which is part of my pilot’s training and familiarisation of how MAF PNG operates, started with the Monday morning briefing right after the Lotu (morning devotions before commencement of work for the day). What took me by complete surprise was that the briefings were literally Brief! Hangar Coordinator Lazarus Nuleya (Laz) curtly passed on the instructions and with an “em tasol” (‘that’s all’ in Tok Pisin), the purely functional briefing ended and within minutes the hangar was transformed into a beehive of activity. After Engineering Manager Tom Meeks welcomed me to the department, Chief Engineer John Kamalan (JK) briefed me on the safety aspects, the work planned and walked me to the hangar. At its centre, was the Caravan P2-MAG which came in for its 200 hourly inspection. Stripped of its engine cowling (covers), pilot and passenger seats and with several gaping hollows in the underside of wings and tail because of panels removed for inspection, the aircraft offered a totally different sight. Stepping inside, it was more like a dissected specimen in a biology lab – the usual plush white interior was now a bare metallic primer green and with the entire floor removed, it revealed the underbelly of MAG – control cables, several bright orange hoses, steely metal pipes and a bunch of thin white electrical wires in a tight loop running along the length and breadth of the frame right into the tail cone.
Coming outside, I could see a thick white folder on one side on a table which most of the engineers were frequently referring to – ‘the work package’. The Maintenance Controller, Clay Walters, had already painstakingly assembled the ‘work package,’ which in addition to the routine maintenance activities associated with the inspection also included the ‘snags’ (defects in aircraft systems) reported by the pilots and a few observed by the engineers themselves. The package included routines on the Pratt and Whitney PT6A turbo-prop engine, flight controls, avionics and replacement of the propeller.
Since I was scheduled to commence my conversion onto the Caravan in a month’s time I was more than excited at this prospect of working with MAG. The most obvious thing that stares you in the eye is the engine, mounted right at the front is the steel behemoth, the engine – now devoid of the cowlings, the propeller and several fittings, and I walked towards it.
I could see Engineer Joseph Tambure working on the engine, slowly and steadily digging into the innards of the powerhouse. With his hands tangled within the maze of metal tubes of varying diameter, wielding a shining spanner and a torch, after a few agonising minutes, he managed to finally extract that specific valve, to access and inspect a certain ‘filter.’ The inspection was another ball game altogether, as he positioned himself into impossible angles trying to get a glimpse of that elusive filter. In spite of the magnifying mirror mounted on a telescopic antenna and the omnipresent torch, it took about a good quarter of an hour to finally get a decent peer at the ‘screen filter,’ which seemed to hide itself within the recesses of a small pipe. After a second opinion from JK, it was assessed that the visual inspection was satisfactory. Joseph signed off the work completed in the ‘work package folder’ and moved onto to the next job, removal of fuel nozzles, mounted along the circumference of the combustion chamber.
In the interim, my eye caught attention of the busy activity unfolding in the cockpit. Here I could see our sole lady engineer, Mechanical Trainee Amber Joy Mori, trying to affix a yellow bar across the two control columns (pilot yokes or steering wheels if you like it) with a green tape. It was in response to a snag reported by the pilots that the control column was slightly tilted with the ailerons in a neutral position. Once the neutral position of the control column was established and locked, she proceeded on to check the tension of each of the cables – steel wires which transmit the pilot’s inputs through a series of pulleys, bell cranks and push-pull rods to the ailerons mounted on the wings. The next step was to increase/decrease the tension of the wires by adjusting the turn buckles, which seemed to be located at such places that need your body to be at more than full stretch. It was more like trying to put a thread in a needle with your hands under your car seat. Working on the wires, adjusting and readjusting she finally got them right. However, since it was work involving the flight controls, this had to undergo a ‘duplicate inspection’ so as to be fool proof and later Laz completed this task. Meanwhile Amber proceeded to work on the issue with elevator trim, more work with wires and turnbuckles.
All through this while, Alwin Mas was busy working on the left wing tip. There was a reported defect of LH Nav light Inop (red navigation light of left-wing tip inoperative). Standing on the ladder, he unscrewed the light cover and replaced the light only to find that the defect still persisted. He had to go one step further, and further investigation revealed that it was a loose connection. Problem solved, the light was tested and found ‘sat.’ It was time to move on to the next item in the work package, the autopilot. During the same time, Kalex Menson was focusing on the undercarriage as he was fitting a black sleeve onto the fairing.
Meanwhile, Francisco Aska was right at the end of the plane, next to the rudder working on the defect of ‘excessive play in rudder gust lock handle.’ This job involved fitment of actuator reinforcement which needed to be manufactured in the workshop. It was cutting of plates, drilling holes and after three hours of hard work, Francisco had the desired object in hand. With the job completed, it was time to join hands with Alwin for the work on the autopilot. Laz was busy working on assembling the new propeller. Watching the diligence and precision required for the same, it was more like a doctor on an operating table than an engineer in a hangar. This he was doing while also coordinating the work and keeping a sharp eye on the progress of work.
As the pace of work continued to build out in the hangar, Francis Kama was busy sorting out the paperwork associated with the aircraft as a part of an upcoming inspection. The burden of painstakingly checking every entry seemed to give his face that weary look which seemed to say, I’d rather have my hands in grease. Engineer Brandon Coker on the other hand, was busy with loads of paperwork, literally tonnes – of folders and files, past records and present, in plastic bins and huge packets – sorting them out, one by one for storage. I could also see Clay staring into his screen, carefully monitoring and analysing the reports on the engine performances that have been downloaded and processed.
As the day progressed there was a call about “Uniform (P2-MFU) coming in with a defect.” Work had to be redistributed and engineers were allotted to rectify the snag as soon as possible to enable it to meet the operational commitments. Joseph was by now inspecting the combustion chamber with a borescope (a light and lens combination mounted on a flexible wire which is physically manoeuvred into the area of inspection and gives a visual feedback on the screen). Earlier I saw him open a bolt that required nearly 120 moves of the spanner (with a clearance of less than an inch for the spanner movement) while the next one needed only 30. While Jade Kunika and Francisco were replenishing the oxygen tank Maro Kopi was busy with fixing the autopilot with Alwin. Laz and JK were busy trying to get Uniform back into business.
It takes more than sheer engineering to keep the aircraft flying, I realised. It takes backbreaking hard work, commitment to excellence and tremendous flexibility on the part of our engineers. Their penchant for quality with built-in checks and balances, the meticulousness of paperwork and the monitoring of the aircraft and engines with an eagle’s eye are all essential ingredients that bring in foolproof safety to our flying operations. These bunch of men in dark blues with their soft-spoken voices and steely resolve are truly the ‘wind beneath our wings.’