QA, a touchy-feely experience--Part 1Just a few months after sewing on master sergeant, or E-7, and thus becoming a “bigwig” senior NCO, at least in some people’s minds, I was recruited away from the shop to join the Quality Assurance Office. MSgt Gray, the man I would ultimately replace, was the fellow who recruited me. He had observed me one steamy Arkansas Monday morning out on the flight line as I supervised all the avionics airmen, about 25 people, for that week’s FOD walk.
What caught Sgt Gray’s attention was my constant haranguing of my troops to stop gabbing, to spread out, to get their hands out of their pockets, and to actually pick something UP for heaven’s sake!
Ever since I had first started picking it up during my time in the air wing of the Marine Corps, I had taken F.O.D. very seriously. Sgt Gray was apparently quite impressed with my devotion to the task at hand and he really liked my apparent “hardass” take-charge style, which ironically, was not really my style at all. He hadn’t realized it, but I was doing what I was doing mostly tongue-in-cheek. Knowing me, my guys knew better than to take me TOO seriously, but still understood that I had to at least try to make it look good, especially when they knew that I knew that people were watching them AND me. Does that make sense? (probably not!)
By the way, FOD stands for foreign object debris, the destroyer of super expensive aircraft engines. When sucked up into engine intakes, FOD can cause major bucks worth of damage to an engine's vital internals, mostly to the spinning fan blades and vanes.
QA was quite an experience, very different from my previous life as a maintainer, and richly rewarding. The first wonderful thing about it is that my first task was to do what I’ve always been pretty good at—reading. My second task was also to read, and finally, I was ordered to—you guessed it—to READ. For the first week or two I read page after page from a mandatory reading list that included dozens of every sort of Air Force technical publication, all applicable to the work of repairing and maintaining C-130 aircraft and its ancillary systems.
Right off the bat, from the other inspectors, I learned that no matter what their maintenance specialty, all Quality Assurance inspectors keep a pocket notebook filled with references to all of the most important maintenance publications, called Air Force Technical Orders, or in the vernacular, TOs. The reason is simple: upon taking on the mantle of QA, we were expected to become fonts of maintenance wisdom and to be able to instantly quote the sources of that wisdom.
Supposedly, we were the experts, the go-to-guys for every problem that came down the pike. Whether it was an aircraft fire or a run of bad components from supply, we were expected to investigate, gather data, report our findings, and recommend “fixes.”
Another primary assignment, albeit an unofficial one, was to be bogeymen. I hated that part of it and refused to act the part of a “gotcha monster,” or at least I refused to enjoy it, much! On the other hand, several of the others just plain old reveled in it. They’d pull up next to an airplane in one of our QA pickup trucks and satisfyingly watch the flurry of activity they caused. Sometimes it was exactly like when roaches scurry away when the lights come on. With distinctive caps perched high, aluminum clipboards clutched prominently, and with forbidding personas on full display, they would proceed to scare the hell out of as many airmen as possible.
A favorite ploy was to pull up in front of an airplane, a C-130E, usually filled and crawling with maintenance troops, and just sit there for a few minutes. In the meantime, people in the aircraft scrambled like crazy to make sure things were put right if they weren’t already, like having proper TOs at each work position, to double-check on safety devices and to make sure the aircraft forms were in good order. Then, after waiting a few minutes, the inspectors would pull away without ever intending to actually get out in the first place. It sounds like harassment, and it is, but some would reason that if that’s what it takes to get people to get squared away then so be it.
Sometimes, after coming back in from the flight line after a crueler than usual “attack,” I’d hear a couple of my fellow inspectors brag about some young airman that they had just reduced to tears. I guess it was my softhearted side, but hearing that kind of meanness always turned my stomach. The way they saw it though, they were putting the fear of God into those youngsters, making sure they understood the consequences and gravity of screwing up with lives and multi-million dollar weapons systems on the line. Even so, I didn’t like it.
I had a different style. I had no use for the concept of instilling fear into hearts and minds of “my people,” and that’s how I thought of them. I wanted them to “do right” because it was the right thing to do. I’d let the other inspectors act the “bad cop,” while I tried to play the “righteous cop.” Unless, that is, they gave me no choice.
In spite of going out of my way to downplay the scariness that my position as QA inspector caused, I realized quickly that it didn’t matter how nice I acted or how friendly my demeanor; my very presence was enough to send some young inexperienced airmen into fits of trembling mindlessness. This was more likely to happen when I did what we called an “over the shoulder” on one of them.
Each inspector had an extensive quota of various types of inspections that had to be completed each month. These inspections included checks of test equipment and their forms, proper upkeep of shop TOs, and our bread-and-butter—inspections of both completed maintenance, and maintenance as it was in-work, also called “over the shoulder” inspections.
The “over the shoulder” inspections were particularly nerve wracking for the inspectee, because he was literally a fish in a bowl. The inspector watches every action, from selection of the proper TO and test equipment, to the final sign off the aircraft forms, and every action in between, and all of it timed. To an inexperienced troop this process could cause unbearable anxiety.
I remember one poor fellow, an A1C, who as his “over the shoulder” progressed, became so nervous that he became unable to function. His hands trembled so hard that he could not even turn the pages of his checklist. I stopped him, telling him that I had just officially ended the inspection and to go ahead with the procedure just for practice. I think it was a simple operational check after one of the aircraft indicators had been removed and replaced.
As soon as I told him that I would just watch him go about the checkout as a freebie, he lost his shakes and sailed through it. As he finished the last step I clicked my stopwatch and congratulated him on a job done perfectly. I had decided that if he was able to complete it correctly to give it to him, and if not, I’d just tell his supervisor that the boy needed more work to build his confidence. After that, he was good to go and never had another problem with inspectors.
So that was my style, trying to put people at ease, to get a TRUE take on things. I figured if folks were trying to overcome nerves that I wasn’t getting a true gauge of their knowledge and abilities.
Not long after “learning the QA ropes,” another personal policy I soon implemented was to never surprise a branch chief with a “gotcha!” For instance, on occasion, a procedure would get amended in the checklists or TOs, and because I was always reading the publication changes I oftentimes found them ahead of the shops. I’d always be especially sure to make a note in my “inspector’s notebook” of any new aircraft “warnings,” “cautions,” and “notes.”
Sure enough, I’d be out on the flightline and find one of the guys going through a procedure without complying with one of the new steps I had discovered. If it involved safety then it was considered a “major write-up,” never a good thing for supervision to be nailed with. I’d correct the problem on the spot and make a beeline for the branch chief’s office. I would tell him, nicely of course, of my findings and that I wanted to ensure that it was corrected, or else I would have to elevate it as a major write-up.
I’d give him a week to fix it, to make sure that all his technicians knew of the amended procedure, to basically get that new knowledge incorporated into everyone’s brain banks. I’d follow-up after the week just to make sure. By comparison, some of my fellow inspectors might simply write it up without trying to fix the problem first with the shops. Again, I had a “kindler and gentler,” less adversarial style. I never wanted to make anyone look bad if I didn’t have to.
What I hated worse than anything though, is if I’d approach a shop chief or a branch chief with what I considered a “freebie,” only to have him cop an attitude and argue with me. I’d listen for a few minutes, smile, and wish him a nice day. First chance I got after that, if I’d catch someone not complying with what I had found and had tried to “share” with the chief, I made it a point to just wrote it up WITHOUT first conferring with him. You see? You TRY to be nice…!
Not long after I began my long tenure in Quality Assurance, I developed a reputation for two idiosyncrasies—one was for the supposedly peculiar way I inspected completed maintenance tasks, and the other, strangely enough, was my affability.
That my affability was not entirely appreciated surprised me somewhat. My goal was honorable—to put folks at ease—but I guess I was creeping some of them out with it. For most, getting inspected was grim business and to have a lighthearted inspector with a good-humored attitude just did not jive with that. Just the same, I continued with the “funny guy” bantering style I was comfortable with, although I could see where my detractors were coming from.
For instance, there were times, although not often, when some of the people I inspected, through no fault of my own, became my “victims;” or that’s how they saw themselves when I had to either outright fail them or rate them very low. When that happened, my smiling joking manner came off as jeering and snide, as an “unkind cut,” so to speak.
One of these poor fellows captured that outlook perfectly after a particularly brutal inspection when he told me after I briefed him on all his many errors, “PJ, you’re the ONLY inspector that tries to cheer people up WHILE you’re failing them. Can I be honest with you? You know, sometimes we don’t know whether to thank you or to knock those smiling teeth down your throat.” With that, I think he captured the sentiment perfectly.
Now, getting back to that first idiosyncrasy of mine—the peculiar way (some claimed) that I inspected completed work. The best way to describe it is by quoting the nickname that some of “my troops” saddled me with. They called me “Touchy Feely,” because I touched virtually everything I checked. But, there was a perfectly valid reason I did that and it came from one especially hard experience that I took strongly to heart.
Lucky me—it happened only a few weeks after I became a certified inspector. Over a week’s time, I guess you could call it “QA hell week,” the QA office itself came under the critical eyes of an even higher level of inspectors, an entire team of them in fact. It was an MSET, or maintenance standardization, evaluation and training assessment team. (Whooo! That’s a mouthful!) Basically, that’s where a group of highly experienced experts came in and assessed whether or not a wing’s QA was doing its job up to par. (I made it past tense, since I don’t think they even do MSETs anymore).
My turn in the barrel was nerve-wracking to say the least. The MSET evaluator decided that he would rate how I assessed one of our avionics troops removing and replacing a flightdeck control panel. I thought all was going well until the troop I was assessing came to the step where he was about to secure the panel in the bracket. The MSET guy stopped him, and using his flashlight, he looked down inside the center console at the electrical connections. He reached inside and called me over. He then pointed out that the panel’s pigtail was loose and out of its clamp, although to me, it had LOOKED to be quite secure. He didn’t fail me for that flub, but I felt useless just the same.
Anyway, from that, I learned my lesson and subsequently, my nickname as well. From then on, I ALWAYS touched, felt, probed, twisted, pulled, pushed, and just generally used my fingers as my second set of eyes. It was also a great way to discover FOD in dark places behind corners and components, and I found lots of other errant things with my touchy-feely fingers that I never would have otherwise discovered.
My time in QA was amazing. I loved being in a job where I could make a difference to an entire wing and not just with one airplane at a time. Plus, it was a vacation from “babysitting” airmen, which is what anyone in the shop does who runs a shift, or a shop, or a branch. Instead of the maintainers, in QA, my only worry was the maintenance itself.
As a matter of fact, I stayed away from supervising maintainers for much too long, and that was ultimately the reason I never made the final “chief master sergeant” enlisted rank.
In essence, I chose between making rank and doing what I loved most. I probably could have made it all the way up to the highest Air Force enlisted E-9 rank, but I opted instead to stay in "staff level" positions, namely Quality Assurance, Aircraft modifications, and aircraft systems testing.
Career wise, my 6 years in "Quality" was my "biggest mistake," but it was also the second best part of my career… my time in testing being the best by far. More on that later… In fact, go here for part 2 of my QA experiences!