Airline mechanics who can't read English
By Byron Harris
The WFAA News (Dallas), May 16, 2009
News 8 has recently revealed serious flaws in the way the FAA licenses mechanics who fix planes.
There is evidence of years of problems in testing these mechanics. There is also evidence that hundreds of mechanics with questionable licenses are working on aircraft in Texas.
Now there is evidence of repair facilities hiring low-wage mechanics who can't read English.
Twenty-one people were killed when U.S. Airways Express Flight 5481 crashed in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2003. The plane went wildly out of control on takeoff.
One reason for the crash, investigators found, was that mechanics incorrectly connected the cables to some of the plane's control surfaces in the repair shop. The FAA was cited for improper oversight of the repair process.
Repairing airplanes is a complicated business. Airplanes have many manuals. Typically, when mechanics repair a part, they open the manual, consult the book, and make the repair step-by-step, as if it were a recipe book.
They make a list of every action they take, so the next person to fix the plane (as well as the people who fly it) will know exactly what has been done.
If mechanics don't speak English, the international language of aviation, they can't read the manual and they can't record their activities.
There are more than 236 FAA-certified aircraft repair stations in Texas, according to the FAA's Web site. News 8 has learned that hundreds of the mechanics working in those shops do not speak English and are unable to read repair manuals for today's sophisticated aircraft.
Former FAA inspector Bill McNease told News 8 he regularly encountered applicants for pilots licenses who tried to pretend they could speak English but could not.
'When I was based in Dallas, I had that happen every week,' McNease said. 'It was not uncommon at all to have foreign flight students. We had mechanics, but I handled the pilot end of it…. and I turned down people every week because they couldn't speak English.'
'There are people [where I work] who do not know how to read a maintenance manual as they are spelled out, because they don't have a clue,' said one certified aircraft mechanic who works at a Texas aircraft repair station. He wished to remain anonymous to protect his employment.
To certify a part for flight or repair an engine, a mechanic must be licensed by the FAA as an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic, known in the business as an 'A&P.'
News 8 discovered that mechanics at one licensing center in San Antonio were being tested in Spanish as late as last fall. The FAA ultimately shut the facility down.
Supervisors in Texas repair stations say they are supposed to oversee the repairs of dozens of untrained mechanics who can't read the manuals and can't write down the work they've done.
But the FAA does not require every person working at a repair station to be a certified A&P. One certified A&P can sign off on the work of dozens of uncertified mechanics.
That creates a huge problem, another certified mechanic told News 8. 'I need an interpreter to talk to these people,' he said. 'They can't read the manuals, they can't write, and I have so many working for me I can't be sure of the work they've done.'
To be sure of proper quality, the supervisor has to either re-do the work himself or take the chance that no mistakes have been made. There is a push to get work out the door and planes back in the air. But when he signs his name to certify the repair for flight, he is legally responsible for it.
The root of the problem is money, mechanics say. A certified mechanic can earn upwards of $25 an hour in Texas. Technicians who can't speak English are often hired for less than $10, according to mechanics interviewed by News 8.
'I've been wanting to leave this company since the day I got there,' said one certified A&P. 'But with the economy the way it is, I've got kids to feed and I have to stay there. I don't want to be anywhere near one of those planes when it kills somebody.'
The FAA is supposed to police repair stations, but insiders say the agency is more focused on looking at paperwork than inspecting the facilities. Insiders also say inspectors warn repair stations when they're coming.
'In Dallas, most of them would map it out and tell them what day they were going to be there,' said Gene Bland, a former FAA inspector.
Safety, mechanics say, is at risk. 'In my opinion,' said one, 'company owners should all be locked up because someone's going to die eventually, if it hasn't already happened.'
Texas' two biggest airlines, American and Southwest, both require mechanics and the technicians who work under them to speak, read and write English.
But mechanics who work elsewhere whose repairs often end up on commercial airliners say their shops are filled with non-English speakers.
The FAA declined to be interviewed for this report.