Friday, August 03, 2007

QA, a touchy-feely experience--Part 1

Just 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!


Anonymous said...

Well, I hope I dont pop any major balloons here. Maybe things were different in the c-130 world, but speaking as a former Avionics Branch chief on fighters, whenever the DCM levied a requirement on my shop chiefs for a warm body for QA, Plans and Scheduling, Analysis, or the myriad of other programs, you can bet your ass they didnt get our top performers. Au contraire, it was the non-producers who were "selected" for these positions. (I left out Maintenance Control). Oops, sorry Phil. Couldnt help it; guess thats why I didnt make E9.That, and a refusal to stay in past the magic 20...

Ed said...

Well it took me a couple sittings to wade through this long post but there is a lot to learn. As a graduate of Dale Carnegie's school of thinking, I can verify that you can often solve more with a friendly smile than a confrontational attitude.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Okay Mac2, that's cool. I get your drift. You're saying I was probably a "non-performer." That very well could be. Stop by and take a look at my EPRs and ERs and then tell me if that's what you think.

Our DCM in '89 wouldn't allow the shops to pawn off slackers into his QA "eyes and ears" shop. He wanted to know exactly what was going on "out there" and we kept him duly informed. And why would you want to send someone you thought little of to a position where that "slacker" could come back and bite you in the ass? Must be that "fighter mentality" I've heard so much about...

I was on fighters for my first year and a half in the AF, F-4s to be exact, and I didn't realize how much I hated them until I started working "the heavies." For me, MAC was a breath of fresh air.

Once I started working "Hercs," I never wanted to so much as see another "lawn dart." I also worked the C-5, C-141, T-39, WC-135, C-9, and H-1, but none of them "grew on me" like the C-130.

I have no doubt that I didn't make chief because I stayed away from the flightline too long, from 1989 until my retirement in '02. I went from QA, to Mod officer, to testing. I KNEW and was told that I needed to get my ass back to the flight line, but I resisted it. "The work" was way too much fun and rewarding in the logistics world. I probably wouldn't have "racked and stacked" me very high either if I had been on my boards and saw that I had stayed 13 years "on staff."

The highest board score I ever received was when I came back from Gulf War I where I had performed as a specialist flight chief after being shipped over there from QA. After that high post-war board score, they continued to sag right up until my last shot in late '01.

Staying in past 20 was never part of any consideration. I loved serving and would have served til the death if they had let me. If they came knocking on my door right now to go back, as long as it was to Iraq or Afghanistan, I'd go in a heartbeat.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yeah Ed, it was long. Sorry about that, but at least you didn't call it a long "thing." So that's good anyway. Maybe I will start writing a shorter cliff notes version for my longer posts and I'll call them "Ed notes."

KA said...

ok... is there debris that ISNT foreign?????

PhilippinesPhil said...

Got me... I didn't make it up.

Amadeo said...

You have so much to tell about your years in the service, Phil. But my 3 sons relay very scanty information about their stints. I surmise it is because they did not make it their career to stay longer.

But I do notice that when they see other marines in civilian life, there is that unsaid bond that they still maintain with each other.

One day when I was hosing down my car in the driveway, one passing car stopped suddenly and a young guy in civvies approached me asking about the family.

Surprised, I said okay.

Turned out he saw the US Marines sticker on the car and he was concerned because he was in the service too, a recruiter at that.

Amadeo said...

BTW, off topic.

Just got back from my usual jog. And guess what played in my Ipod?

Deliverance's Duelin' Banjos, by the Ventures. But this time, the duel was between a banjo and an acoustic guitar.

Kevin said...

If you were listening to Dueling Banjos, it wasn't by the Ventures. The Ventures did "Wipeout" and several other "surf guitar" hits. Dueling banjos was originally recorded by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman. (although everyone thinks it was Flatt & Scruggs)

Kevin said...

I had to google T-39. Couldn't remember what it was. Once I saw the picture I felt kinda silly. We had 'em at Scott. Actually, that was the only thing we had at Scott. There's an interesting chunk of useless trivia. Scott AFB was MAC HQ, but no MAC aircraft were based there. Only a couple T-39's. (Plus 17 Generals and over a thousand Bird Colonels) All those guys out-ranked the Base Commander. I always thought that was the worst job to have, ever. Base Commander at Scott AFB. They got fired all the time. At least one a year in the 5 years I was stationed there. Weird.

KA said...

so its just another redundant military term...? Sometimes I think the military names things a certain way so that they can turn into say-able acronyms.

Amadeo said...

Thanks for the correction, Kevin.

I had downloaded from a P2P network instrumentals done by both the Ventures and Duane Eddy. And I myself was surprised why Dueling Banjos had the Ventures label on it. It does not sound like them. Initially, I thought they must have done that earlier.

Anyway, I am unfamiliar with the two names you mentioned. I was also listening to Guitar Twist and again the label said The Ventures but the sound is different.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Amadeo, there is definitely a lifelong bond that most vets have for each other. Its why I continue with my new avocation of helping them deal with government agencies.

Dueling banjos? Oh yeah, my earlier reference to the "inbreeding" of European royals.

Kevin, yeah, the T-39s I worked were stationed at Yokota and were there to transport our officer bigwigs, just as the ones you had there at Scott.

General officers have got to be the biggest waste of carbon on the face of the earth. Knowing the whimsical nature of their character, I can imagine why they kept getting their base commanders fired at Scott. Want to make things operate smoother in the armed forces, get rid of the officer corps. Talk about inflated opinions of oneself, that is the definition of the O.

Katana: Okay, I tried to blow you off on the FOD thing, but since you insist I'll try to explain it to you.

FOD is an acronym that has been in military and civilian use forever to describe damage done to aircraft engines by objects AND to describe the objects that caused that damage.

We say that the engine was "fodded" out, or its time to go out and do the "FOD" walk. Obviously, the operative words are the first two: foreign object, but the acronym wouldn't work if only the first two letters are included. How do you say "FO"? Obviously, FOD is easier to say.

The original term was "foreign object damage," but we can't go out and pick up "damage," so someone added the word "debris" to make the acronym make a little sense when it comes to describing the objects themselves.

You are correct; adding debris is redundant. Its like saying foreign object object, but NOW you know that the "debris" was added to describe the "stuff" we have to pick up that once introduced into an aircraft engine would definitely be "foreign" and would certainly cause "damage."

Now, please stop worrying that pretty little head over this, OKAY?! Sheeesh!

Anonymous said...

Phil, after I submitted my comment and thought about what I had said I was wishing there was a way to "recall" it-- but it was too late. I was way out of line, and I certainly did not intend to be personal. I can (an do)read your life experiences and the unique and erudite manner with which you share them with us, and certainly I know that you were an intelligent, resourceful, and caring NCO. I dont know what came over me, I think it was the memory of trying to supervise troops on the flightline from Turkey to Danang, with never enough manpower and having to constantly tap into my scarce manpower resources to man other agencies within the DCM complex. My remarks were ill-concieved, emotional and wrong. I apologize.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Sorry right back at ya Mac2. I can see also that you were in during a different time as well. You wouldn't believe the outstanding caliber of people we have in our military these days; they are almost universally highly motivated. The all volunteer force has been the best thing that ever happened to us; and once these folks reach the SNCO level it gets even more ridiculous how good they are.

Its funny, I volunteered to go to war out of the QA shop and shipped over in that capacity, but within a day or so all that went out the window and I became strictly a maintainer again. EVERYTHING changes once it comes to war.

I must say that the things I learned in Quality stayed with me. I don't know why they didn't send all troops over the rank of Sgt through the qualification end of it, just to force awareness of all the regs.

Thanks for the apology, but I was never really impugned anyway. As long as there is no profanity and the discourse is kept mostly civil then it rip. In fact, I enjoy the tough comments...gets me going. Keep them coming buddy...

KA said...

sometimes I just like being difficult :-p lol

LMAO "stop worrying that pretty little head over this".

That phrase is RIGHT up there with "You're so cute when you're angry".

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yeah, Kat, that's an expression I even use with my buddies. Of course with you its actually true. You do seem to have a "pretty little head," although in your photos it actually looks to be normal sized! ...grin... Am I right?

Nice to see you're a good sport. Thanks!

KA said...

well, i've been called big headed... and hard headed ("tigas ng ulo" ?? I think that's what it means... i dont speak Tagalog) so i dunno... I blame it on the hair.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Matigas ang ulo!

Yup, you GOT it! But, at least its pretty and little too!

Anonymous said...

You know as I read this I'm reminded how we Americans take seriously our responsibilities, not just in important maintenance issues like you did, but in nearly all aspects of our lives. That is, compared to other folks who have a culture of "ah, that's good enough!"

One time while riding around with the military on space-A flights, I ended up sharing a billet with an Air Force pilot who was assigned to the Honduran Air Force as a trainer /advisor. He told me one time he, a Captain, was flying copilot with a Honduran colonel in one of their C-130s. In the air the American discovered that the pilot did not do any of the pre-flight checks and one important piece of equipment was missing, and the backup was not working. The American said he just lost it, started screaming at the colonel about what an idiot he was.

Funny story but damned scary too. but that's US and that's THEM. We are different. And that's why our planes fly, our phones work, our bridges . . . oooops. Well, usually our stuff works, at least much better than in other cultures.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I know what you mean Opass. To me, the attitude of that Honduran pilot is more an indication of personal, cultural and societal immaturity. The reason I say that is during my stint as inspector I saw many times the same attitude from young American technicians. Most of the time it was due to sheer laziness, and it was their immaturity that "allowed" them to skip crucial steps or safety precautions. In fact, laziness and a lack of integrity are the flagships of those nations that find themselves floundering in so many aspects. My time in QA taught me, if anything, that laziness and inattention to detail is what crashes airplanes, and it follows that it ruins societies as well. "Good enough" is NEVER good enough.

Oh, and one more thing that separates 1st world nations from those like Honduras and the one we live in, its called fear of consequences. The reason corruption and poor work exists anywhere is because the perpetrators of those things KNOW that they will not be punished if they get caught, or they are CERTAIN they will NOT be caught. In America we do not hesitate to throw high ranking senators and gov't officials in jail when we catch them screwing up. On the other hand, no one EVER goes to jail in a 3rd World nation because virtually everyone is involved in the corruption. Throw one of them in jail, they'll flip, and they all go down. So, no one goes to jail, and those that do or intend to, simply "disappear" or die of "suspicious circumstances."

I have never been more cynical of basic human behavior than I have become since moving here. I've never felt more hopelessness or more despair.