Helicopters are intriguing machines, and it is hard not to be attracted to them. With all their moving parts, they require constant maintenance and meticulous servicing. FOCUS sat down with Nick Soultanian to find out what a day in the life of a helicopter engineer is like.
How long have you worked on helicopters?
I have been an aircraft maintenance engineer for 46 years.
I did my initial training in the RAF in the United Kingdom and spent four years working on Nimrods. I then moved to Australia and spent two and a half years with Qantas working on 747s and 707s.
I have spent the past 40 years working in the general aviation industry, which would mean I’ve spent about 20 years working on helicopters, both here in Australia and New Zealand. I have been with Precision Helicopters here in Coffs Harbour since 2007.
Can you briefly describe your daily routine?
To be honest, there is no such thing as a daily routine in the aviation industry.
Every day is different, and you can never be sure what each day will bring. Precision Helicopters have six different types of helicopters, seven in their total fleet, so there is always variety to each week.
As an example, if a helicopter is in the hangar for routine maintenance, then we will have a good idea of what to expect and how long it will take to complete the job; plus, we would normally have all the required parts and consumable materials on hand. Helicopters are required to be serviced every so many hours of flight. Each helicopter is different; parts get inspected each 50, 100, 300 and 600 hours. There are also annual, biannual and other assessments.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and some unexpected defects may delay the machine from being serviceable whilst we are waiting for new parts to arrive.
Then there is the possibility that a machine may become unserviceable out in the field, which can in itself pose logistical problems. That can often involve a fairly long drive or flight, with all the parts and tools required to carry out a repair, often resulting in an overnight stay.
Are they complicated machines to fix and maintain?
Due to the nature of their design, helicopters have lots of moving parts and to the uninitiated, this can make them appear complicated to maintain and repair – which of course they are – but once you understand the basic principles of the mechanics, they really aren’t that difficult to work on.
What sort of training do you require?
There are several options for training. One is to join one of the armed forces and learn your trade there. There are now also several training schools that will help assist you towards your goal and of course, you could always try contacting a local maintenance facility to see if they can offer any sort of work, which might help lead you into full-time employment.
What is the most challenging part of the job?
Most engineers will have different opinions as to what they find the most challenging part of the job. Some might say that all the paperwork that is involved is far and away the biggest challenge. Every part used on the helicopter has to have paperwork that is traceable, where the part was bought from, who manufactured it and when. Most of the parts are purchased out of the United States, and sourcing them from there can be difficult. Personally, I find that defect rectification can be the most challenging, but it is also the most satisfying when you finally locate that difficult to find problem and repair it successfully.
Can you fly a helicopter?
In a word, no, but that’s not to say I haven’t flown one and I certainly don’t have a pilot’s licence. I can, however, fly radio controlled ones, and a lot of people will tell you they are harder to fly than the real thing!
However, as engineers we often get to go on air tests for various reasons such as main rotor tracking and balancing or checking power performance parameters.
What is your favourite helicopter and why?
I will have to say the Hughes, now MD 500 (the bad guys in movies always fly these!) I have always liked its looks; it’s a very manoeuvrable machine and has a reasonable turn of speed. It is, however, not a particularly easy machine from the maintenance point of view.
What advice would you have for someone who is thinking about taking your line of work up as a career?
Several years ago I might have replied to that question by saying, “Don’t do it!” However, I now believe that there are more and more opportunities available for a young engineer and would highly recommend this choice of career to anyone thinking about it. It is a very hands on practical skill, so someone with a mechanical background such as car mechanics naturally enjoy it.
I personally believe that you need to have some sort of interest in aviation to begin with though, although there are always exceptions to this.