© 2004, Kevan Hashemi

Extreme Engineer

Written to Kirsten while waiting in an airport.

I walked out onto the tarmac. My years of experience jury-rigging choppers in Burma came back to me as I approached the engineering crew working on delayed flight 3147. Aviation engineering crews, or at least the good ones, are driven by a teeth-clenching ambition. Each holds in their minds a vision of a plane, or a chopper, or a twenty-first century interplanetary vehicle, rising from the earth, carrying medical supplies for hungry children, with a WD40-soaked piece of cradboard they cut from a Captain Crunch serial packet standing in as the gasket on the turbo charger. When a guy like me walks out on the tarmac, they can tell, by the way I walk, that I've been there. I have lived the dream. I've felt the sweat drip into my eyes as a C130 lumbers into the sky off a runway of baked sand in the Kalahari Desert, the ignition plugs sparking blue and bright in her turbo-props thanks to an hour's work in the sun with a nail file borrowed from the French spinster I found living with the bushmen. They know my walk: it's the walk of the old-timer. I have the beat of a twin-rotor thumping in my head, and my hips move in time. I'm trying not to smile as I approach these aspirants, these young men and women with wrenches and voltmeters in their hands, trays of tools at their finger tips, manuals open on their laps, the pages flapping in the chill autumn wind that rushes across the runways carrying the stink of jet fuel and the buzzing roar of twenty-first century gas turbines. I see the fierce pride awaken in their eyes as they recognise me from the February 1997 cover of Extreme Engineer.

"Hey, fellas," I say, and I have my hand in my pocket playing with my keys, like I'm nervous, but I'm not, and maybe they know that. I look up into the jet engine, a chaotic maze of pipes and valves and blades to the layman, but to me, a picture of efficiency, every element necessary, and nothing missing, but there it is, a dismantled flame sensor assembly, and downstream from it, a release valve with a corroded stop-cock. It takes me four seconds to understand the dilemma these young people are in. But I can't just tell them. The life of an aviation engineer is a journey, a journey of love, and none of us want to be lifted like medical supplies from one point on the road to another, either forward of backward. Or maybe I'm assuming that these men and women staring at me are made from the same mold as myself: a mold cast in the heat of the Sahara and chilled in the cold of the Arctic. But I have to assume they are from the same mold. I have to show them respect. I nod my head, in time with the beat of the rotors in my mind, and I say, "So, igniter problems, eh?"

A woman with her red hair tied up behind her head frowns at me. "Yeah," she says, with her chin thrust out, and I know she's thinking, this is my baby, not yours.

I nod my head and jangle my keys, "Yeah, salty air here too, I remember the salt in Siberia, with the cold, on the Arctic Sea, working havok with the valves. But I guess that's not your problem, and I can see you have the situation under control. I'll be on the flight, so I'll let you work in peace."

The red-head looks up into the engine, and back at me, and back at the engine. The other guys look at her, and at me. She sees the valve, and she's about to reach out and touch it, but she turns to me and says, "Yeah, well, that's in Siberia, not here. And you have no clearance to be out on the tarmac. Get back inside the terminal."

I smile. "Okay, darling, it's just good to be out here," and I turn around and go back inside, where it's warm. It will take them an hour to put the igniter back together, and a half-hour to replace the valve, so we should be out of here by, say, noon.