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Grease Monkey

My hands were a mess. They were absolutely covered in grease—but it was clean grease! I was repacking the main-wheel bearings for our club's Bonanza. It was the first day of our annual inspection and we had a good turnout, with about a dozen members in the hangar working under the supervision of our club's mechanic and the airplane's crew chief.

Before getting greasy, I'd cleaned the parts of the hub assembly and laid them out on a clean rag in the order they came apart—very important for remembering how to put them back together! The bearing races were clean and ready to accept the bearings. Now I just needed to scrape the excess grease off the bearing in my hand, which was proving, uh, difficult. Hal the crew chief noticed my predicament and couldn't help but laugh. "I think you overdid it," he said. "Here, put the bearing down on this rag and go clean up."

Aircraft maintenance involves a lot of tasks like this that aren't exactly rocket science but still require a certain knowledge or knack, like how to remove the oil filter without dousing the engine with oil, how to reach the bottom spark plug on cylinder number 6—or how much grease a bearing really needs.

And then there are the truly glamorous tasks. "How's it going down there?" Hal asked Tim, the newest member, who was on his back on a creeper cleaning the belly of the airplane. The new folks always get the best assignments! Actually, degreasing the belly is a rite of passage all members go through. It's really not a hazing ritual—it just makes sense to start at the bottom (literally) and work your way up as you learn about the airplane. Tim's arms were tired, but he gave a weak smile as he scrubbed away.

Having finally mastered the art of meting out grease, I finished the bearing job and was ready for a new task, which involved… more grease! "The gun's on the shelf over there," said Hal. "All the zerk fittings need lubricating. See if Wolf can help you. It's a lot easier with two people." So, for the next hour, Wolf and I scrambled around under the airplane finding all the zerk fittings using a shop-manual diagram (and trying not to kick Tim). One of us would attach the nozzle to a fitting while the other pumped the grease gun. We'd alternate as needed (he has longer arms; I have smaller hands). Reaching those fittings can require some elaborate gymnastics!

Over the years, I've done many of the preventive maintenance tasks allowed by FAR Part 43 Appendix A(c). I've replaced tires, inner tubes, and ELT batteries. I've serviced landing-gear struts and cleaned and gapped spark plugs. I've removed and replaced spar covers for a biennial spar inspection required by airworthiness directive. I've even assisted our mechanic in hanging a freshly overhauled engine on its mount.

The annual inspections are hard work, but they're fun and I always learn something new about the airplanes. I've been reflecting on these lessons as I write Chapter 2 of my book (here's a draft excerpt). The inspections are also a great opportunity to get to know other members and do some "hangar flying," swapping tales of past adventures and hopes for the future. We have some very seasoned pilots in our club, many of them ex-military guys with thousands of hours of experience. I've had quite an education listening to their stories about hellish cross-winds in the Aleutians, encounters with severe icing, and lessons of all kinds learned over the years from decisions both good and bad.

That first day of the annual was a long one, but we got a lot done as usual. At home that night I reflected on the day's accomplishments over a well-earned beer. As I raised the glass to my lips I was rewarded with the sweet aroma of hops and malted barley—and grease!

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