Jude and Janet Barrett were British citizens who emigrated to Melbourne in 1974 in search of a better life and, more importantly, better weather. On 30 December 1990, they gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, who they called Solomon.
Sol was raised in the UK by his mother, Janet, who had taken him there when he was five years old in mid-1996. Sol’s parents had divorced, but his father, Jude, had decided to stay in Melbourne. Jude had been battling mental illness at the time of the divorce and had a safe and stable job, which he didn’t want to lose.
To Jude, it made sense his boy moved to a better environment where he could grow up with extended family around him. This was in preference to him staying in Australia to witness his parents battle it out in courts and cause the inevitable turmoil a divorce can bring.
Jude signed the papers for Janet to take Sol to the UK and ensured he maintained a strong connection with his boy. Jude would save his money to take trips to see Sol, sending him letters and birthday cards, and often calling him by telephone. Sol was never far from Jude’s thoughts, and conversely, Jude was never far from Sol’s.
Janet had extended family across the UK, so it made sense to her, once she divorced Jude, to return to her family. Both Janet and Jude hailed from a quaint little town in the north of England called Congleton, near the border of Cheshire and Staffordshire.
Sol had a decent upbringing. Christmas was terrific, as his family would travel from all over the UK to be together. During these happy times, he would play with his cousins, and they’d all be showing off their brand-new shiny toys.
Although Janet was not wealthy, she endeavoured to make sure Sol had what he needed before he got things he wanted. She would often comment on how good a son he was because he would never ask for anything. Of course, Sol wanted the nice things the other kids had, but he knew his mum couldn't afford them, so he didn’t ask.
Janet enrolled Sol into the local state school. It wasn’t anything special, but it did the job. Sol left high school with average grades but no direction on where his life was heading. It did seem he was destined to be around aircraft in some way, shape or form.
Not long after leaving school, Sol secured a job as a baggage handler at Manchester Airport. The job suited Sol as it paid for his alcohol and on occasion, weed. It also enabled him to get those nice things he had always wanted but could never afford. After a couple of years, Sol left the baggage handling job and moved to London in search of a better life. London was a vibrant city with a good nightlife, a bounty of pretty women, and endless parties.
Sol had been interested in aircraft for most of his life, so it was no surprise he found the right people to talk to about becoming an aircraft engineer. The people he knew at Manchester Airport put him in contact with people in London, where he enrolled in an aircraft engineering course, which took a year to complete.
Once this box was ticked, he went on to the airline careers websites to apply for work as an apprentice. One airline took him on, and it took a further three years for him to become a fully-fledged aircraft maintenance engineer. After a couple of years in the role, his application to become licenced was approved by the aviation transport authority.
Sol understood the licence came with extra responsibility as he would now be the final certifier on the airworthiness of an aircraft. He revelled in the prospect of this, and not only did Sol see this as a challenge, he knew being licenced meant a higher salary.
One night, Sol went out on the town and met a wonderful girl called Kate. Kate was also Australian and had been on a journey through Europe. Now, in London, she had found work at a Down Under Bar. This bar served Foster’s as if it was Australia’s national beer. Funnily enough, no one drinks Foster’s in Australia, you won’t find it served on any tap, and if you do, it’s a rarity.
Sol and Kate got caught up talking about their shared love of Australia, and that was that, as they say. They were smitten with each other and dated for many months before Kate became homesick. She struggled for a while before deciding to move back to her hometown of Brisbane, Australia.
Sol was working at Gatwick Airport for an airline when he met Kate. When she decided to move back to Australia, he decided to follow her. It was a no brainer for him; he had been maintaining the currency of his Australian passport, so moving back to Australia was not an issue. Besides, he was tired of the cold and rain, an unpleasant feature of the English weather.
They managed to keep their relationship going for 12 months after Kate departed London. Sol eventually found a suitable job in Brisbane and shortly after accepting the position, he bought himself a ticket to Australia. He packed his suitcase and flew out the following week, leaving the possessions he couldn’t fit into a suitcase to a local charity.
Before Sol arrived in Brisbane, Kate had been living with her mum. However, they both thought it best they find their own place to move into and settle down. It wasn’t long before they hit the jackpot and rented a beautiful two storey home in the northern suburbs of Brisbane.
They bought a dog–Roxy–a two-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback that Sol found in the RSPCA adoption centre. Roxy was a beautiful dog and loyal to them both. Ridgebacks were bred to hunt Lion's, although Roxy had missed this memo, as the only thing she could hunt well was a lounge cushion. She was a gentle giant, and they loved her dearly.
Sol and Kate had everything they needed. They were looking forward to the future and talking about having children. They were living the dream.
Sol was a calm and calculated person, and when he talked, he only spoke the words necessary to get his message across. All the other words seemed like a waste of oxygen to him. The people he worked with in Hangar Four at Brisbane Airport were larger than life. Even if Sol sometimes thought they preferred the banter rather than working, nevertheless they were all very likeable characters.
“Do some work,” he would often mutter as he walked past them in the hangar. Sometimes he would say it loud enough to be heard, which made them think he was rude, but he just wanted them to work. Sol never wanted to get involved with the drama and comedic niceties it seemed the hangar culture demanded. He didn't care if he was liked or not as he was there to do a job, not to talk.
It was a typical Queensland summer morning when Sol turned up at Hangar Four for his shift, and it was already warm. His car showed 26 degrees on the dashboard, and the sun wasn’t far from rearing its angry head over the horizon, making it three degrees hotter by the hour. Queensland doesn’t have daylight saving time, so in the middle of summer, it can often be daylight at four-thirty in the morning.
Going to be a scorcher today, he thought, as he parked the car and walked through the main entry door. Sol greeted the already busy cleaner, as he did every day, and threw his bag on top of his locker. He walked into the lunchroom and headed towards the over-used coffee machine and got his lifesaving morning coffee. He tried not to spill his coffee as he walked towards his desk on the hangar floor where he would prepare the jobs for the day ahead.
Sol was always the first into work, arriving at five o’clock every morning without fail. He wasn’t expected to do this, but it was something he did to make his life a little easier and be more efficient. Sol was all about efficiency, and he did this so he would be prepared for his team members when they arrived at six o’clock.
At five-thirty each morning, the supervisors held a meeting so that each team was aware of what the other teams were doing. The meetings were also to communicate any church notices or safety concerns. Church notices came through from head office and were matters everyone in Hangar Four needed to know about. In the aviation maintenance industry, communication is vital, and safety is a priority.
Sol was always first to arrive at this meeting. He would be waiting for the meeting to start as the other supervisors came through the door.
“Morning, Sol,” would come the reply as if he too, was on autopilot.
This would go on until all the supervisors arrived, resembling a roll call, spoken through bleary eyes and the bottom of a coffee mug. Each supervisor would whip their phone out of their pocket like a revolver to avoid any further conversation. Maintaining a discussion can be tricky so early in the morning. They would spend time showing each other funny messages or photos and have a quiet laugh. Nothing more was expected.
There were six maintenance teams on the hangar floor, four mechanical teams and two avionics (electrical) teams. The mechanical teams are known as the dirty ones who get grease and hydraulic fluid all over themselves and the hangar floor. The electrical teams are known as the clean ones who work on the electrical, radio and navigational systems and due to this, wouldn’t be as filthy as the mechanics.
Sol could tell how the day was going to play out by the way the morning supervisors meeting progressed. If the day began badly in the morning supervisors meeting, it was going to be bad all day, especially if an argument ensued, and Sol hated arguing with anyone.
One of the supervisors, Mike Royle, was playing with his phone and looked up as if remembering something.
“Hey, Sol, it’s your anniversary today, isn’t it, mate?” said Mike.
“Sure is, how did you know that?”
“It was me who put you on to the jeweller’s remember? The one my daughter works at?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that, thanks mate.”
Sol didn’t much like his personal life creeping into the workplace and especially wasn’t comfortable with Mike being friendly to him.
Still, one day Mike was walking behind him as he was flicking through websites on his phone to find the perfect necklace for Kate. Of course, Mike couldn’t help himself and recommended the jewellers where his daughter worked. Although Sol saw this as being nosy Mike had promised his daughter would give him a substantial discount.
“Happy anniversary, buddy,” said Mike, “That’s cake.”
Sol had quietly hoped to get away without the mandatory cake fine, but Mike had seen to it being implemented.
“Thanks, mate. Appreciate it. I’ll bring one in tomorrow, ya fuck.”
The cake fines were out of control. If you made a mistake, it was a cake. If it was your birthday, it was a cake. Yeah, that’s right, you would have to buy your own birthday cake. You could be fined a cake for almost any reason, including weddings, babies, and promotions. It wasn’t just any cake either, with the benchmark set at nothing less than a Cheesecake Shop delicacy, which would cost near on $40.
Once the morning supervisor meeting was finished, Sol dragged himself out to the hangar floor and sat at his desk to brief his team, who had now arrived and were gathered around his desk. Sol passed on the information he had been told in the supervisor’s meeting and went on to hand out the jobs to his team.
Sol worked in what is called deeper aircraft maintenance, which is different from the line or operational maintenance.
Line maintenance engineers are the engineers you see when you are waiting for an aircraft to depart. It’s the guy who looks different from all the other ground staff. He is the one who is probably running around looking stressed, putting tape on things, arguing with pilots, or frantically scribbling in a book. This guy’s job is to make sure the aircraft is safe for the public to travel on and fix any last-minute issues with the aircraft to make sure you get to your destination on time.
The line engineer is an unsung hero, as his work goes largely unnoticed. He is the guy who deems the aircraft is fit to fly and signs off on it. Can you imagine what would happen if an aircraft fell out of the sky? Apart from it being all over the papers, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau would get involved and go to the aircraft logbooks to see who signed off on the aircraft. If negligence was found to be the cause, the line engineer is held accountable, would probably lose their job, and possibly be sent to prison.
So next time you see this man or woman, please be patient, as he or she may be saving your life without you even knowing it, and it happens every day. For most of the thousands of aircraft departures happening around the world daily, there are no issues. An engineer will not be required to tend to the aircraft. Such is the quality of the aircraft in the skies today. However, this quality can only be maintained by regular servicing and inspections of the aircraft, which is where deeper maintenance comes in.
Deeper maintenance is like taking your car for a scheduled service, but on a much larger scale. There are different levels of services; some can be done at the terminal gate; others can take up to six months to complete. Aircraft operators will stagger these checks, as they are called. This is to ensure not all aircraft are on the ground at once, which would be bad for business, and inconvenient to customers.
Sol supervised a small team of four aircraft electricians or sparkies, also known as avionics engineers, who specialise in the electrical systems but also work on the radio and navigational systems. His team wasn’t the only team of sparkies. The other team was supervised by Mike Royle, a short, rotund man.
Mike was from the UK, an ex-pat from Manchester, and a loyal fan of Manchester City. Sol was a long-standing Manchester United fan, and after each match, Mike would often take great joy in stirring Sol with the football results. They didn’t always get along because of this rivalry.
Mike was currently in the ascendency as Man City were doing a lot better in the league than what United was. United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired in 2013 and, since then, had not lived up to their success of the previous 27 years he had overseen the club. Mike loved to remind Sol of this.
Mike would often say, “Pretty bad when your best player on the field is your keeper!”
“Fuck you, Mike. At least we didn’t buy the league.” Sol would retort.
The Abu Dhabi United Group had bought Man City in 2008. It had injected large sums of money into the club, which inevitably brought them success. Sol knew the Premier League was a cycle, and United’s time would come again. So, he put up with the abuse and hoped to get even when United got better.
Sol and Mike maintained a professional relationship, though you could always tell there was a little angst towards one another.
Sol liked his little team of sparkies. It was the right mix of people with varying degrees of experience, cultures, and backgrounds. It worked well, but did, at times, test Sol’s ability to supervise people adequately. Sol enjoyed a challenge. It kept things exciting and fresh for him.
Sol’s current deputy was Manny, from the Philippines. Manny was a great worker and easy to get along with, although the language barrier could be an issue at times. Sol didn’t mind this, as he knew he could give Manny a job and it would always get done. Sol respected this; it made his job a lot easier, knowing he didn’t have to make sure someone was doing the right thing constantly. Manny had broad experience, but not a lot of deeper maintenance experience. Nevertheless, Sol liked him, and they got along well.
Jane was Sol's apprentice, and at 18 years old, the first female to grace the maintenance floor of Hangar Four. He had a lot of time for Jane and was determined to keep her there. He felt she had huge potential and didn’t want to let her talent go to waste. Jane had committed herself to this vocation and had shown great courage to go into a male-dominated industry. It couldn’t have been easy for Jane, and Sol had decided to help her the best he could.
Sol had a real soft spot for another girl on his crew, Ellie. Ellie had been recruited after Jane and had experience in teaching and line maintenance but had never worked in deeper maintenance in a hangar environment. Ellie was bubbly, a bit of a hippy and very easy-going, with a wicked sense of humour. She could always make Sol laugh, and he liked that in her. Sol felt Ellie could be his deputy one day and wanted to make sure she gained the necessary experience for the next step in her career.
For Sol, if his team members showed initiative and enthusiasm, it didn’t matter if you were male, female, or transgender. He made time for anyone who showed they were keen to learn and improve themselves. From Sol’s point of view, if you weren’t keen to learn and grow, why should he bother to help you.
Manny always asked what the plan was for the day, and everyone was ‘Boss’ to him. Sol didn’t like being called Boss, as he felt it showed a divide. From his point of view, there should be no divide in a team.
“What’s the plan today, Boss?” asked Manny.
“Well, I thought we might start inspections on the wing,” said Sol, “I also have the new strobe light for the wing, so maybe Ellie and Jane can do that?”
Sol would always have a way of telling people to do things where it would seem like he was asking a question, or a favour, when in fact, he was telling you to do something. He thought this would make people feel more a part of the team, and they were doing something to help it along, rather than just coming to work to do a job.
Jane smiled. She knew Sol didn’t like being called Boss, but she was feeling cheeky today and wanted to stir him up.
“No worries, Boss!”
Sol hung his head low and pretended to ignore Jane’s dig as he turned around and faced Manny.
“Manny, can you start the inspections on the wing for me please mate. I’ll follow you along and have a look as well once you’ve started.”
Sol shuddered at being called Boss again. It’s six o’clock in the morning, and I’m already getting wound up.
Sol's manager was a South African whose first name was Albertus. Albertus didn't like his birth name much and rarely used it. He would only ever use it for official purposes as it was on his birth certificate and needed to be on his passport. So, he called himself Barry, which was shortened to Baz. Some people to this day, don’t even know his real name.
Baz came over to Sol’s desk after the others had left to start their jobs for the day and would always greet Sol in the same way.
Now to some, this may seem aggressive, but in the Hangar Four culture, it was a healthy term of endearment. To hear it said with a South African accent though is quite alarming for those who are not used to it.
“Morning Baz, how ya doing mate? What can I do for ya?”
Sol knew something, probably bad, was coming his way. It wasn’t often Baz approached him this early in a shift unless it was absolutely necessary.
“Sorry to jump on you so early mate, but I was wondering what your availability is for a repaint trip to the States? We’ve been asked to supply a team to accompany one of the aircraft next month.”
In context, an airline would occasionally send engineers to accompany an aircraft to get repainted. A repaint was a fantastic job to get. You would do little, and the repaints were done in either France or the States, all flights paid for and usually business class, plus allowances.
Repainting aircraft is necessary not just for the airline image, but it also prevents corrosion to the aircraft skin. People think the paint is only for looks, but it does serve another essential purpose. When an aircraft is subjected to ongoing extreme conditions, from searing desert heat to a -50 degree, 900 kph airflow, the paint is the only protection preventing the skin from rapidly rusting.
Sol pretended that Baz’s question didn’t mean anything to him, but on the inside, he was smiling his arse off.
“Yeah, I’m pretty much available to go any time, Baz.”
“Okay then. Well, make sure your passport is in order, pick a four-person crew, and I’ll get you more information on the location and dates.”
Baz turned around and walked away, leaving Sol to deal with Mike who was on the other side of the partition between the desks.
“Fucking sweet!” Sol said out loud.
Mike had heard their conversation, stood up, and had a look of thunder on his face. Baz was Mike’s boss as well, but Sol wasn’t concerned about why Baz picked him for the trip. It wasn’t his problem.
What a great start to the day, he thought. Not only have I got a trip to the States, but I’ve also managed to piss Mike off—that makes it worthwhile. Silly jealous fucker.