Saturday, April 30, 2016

Asking too much?

People who repair and modify flying machines fall into two broad categories known as “airframe” and “powerplant” mechanics. Those are the two licenses one must earn to legally add an entry to an aircraft's maintenance log books, entries that are required when ever there is work performed and, yes, there is one logbook for the “airframe” and as many “engine” logs as there are engines installed. Often there is a “propeller” log as well, and there was (when I left that world) a growing reliance on an “avionics” log.

Those who are airframe mechanics are very often, just by the nature of the work, sheet metal experts. Cutting, riveting, drilling holes, adding equipment, fixing fatigue failures and addressing corrosion issues all being a routine part of the mechanic's work day. Every single one of them that I ever knew carried a six inch rule that was marked in 1/100s of an inch. In their tool box was a 12 inch rule also marked in 1/100s of an inch. Nearly everything we did was measured to the 1/100th, particularly rivet edge distances and spacing. It was precision work and one rarely, if ever, just “punched a hole”. Mine are now among the tools traveling around in my boat mechanic's golf cart.

They have yet to be put to use.

And so it came to pass that my job assignment for that last couple of weeks has included replacing parts on a brand new 31' cruising, tug style, power boat that had a “lift incident” before it was ever commissioned. Damage included the equipment mast on top of the boat, a steel tube contraption supporting RADAR, GPS, lights, and horn that can be folded down to the deck to get under a bridge. (Or for towing. This thing is sitting on a trailer.) There are big fiberglass cuffs mounted to the top of the cabin sides and around the front of the boat called an “eyebrow” that need replaced. The VHF antenna was shattered, there are scuffs and dents on the rub rail, various bits were ripped out of their supporting fiberglass while hand rails along the top of the boat were bent into new and unusable shapes. All of the headliner and some of the interior side panels had to be removed to reach the various bolts and fasteners attaching bent parts to the boat.

When we are all done the boat will have to still be “new”. It can't sport the dings, scrapes, mars, and marks accumulated when people move around the inside of anything. New owners pay for the privileged of leaving those initial scars. Cardboard gets laid on the teak floor, covers rest over the seats and counters, set no tools down on an unprotected surface, do no damage. Which, of course, is not entirely possible, but we do the best we can.

This Tug's interior, like Kintala's, is mostly wood that has been sanded and oiled, not painted or varnished. It is pretty, and damned tender. One can hardly touch it without leaving a mark, let alone slip another piece of wood over it while removing interior parts. Even sweat will stain this stuff and, given that we are working in the Florida Sunshine on a boat sitting out in a storage yard, there is a lot of sweat readily available for staining. I will never, ever, buy another boat where the interior isn't finished in some way to be a bit more durable. Trying to work this Tug without leaving a trail of evidence behind is an endless exercise in frustration, and is adding hours of labor to the bill.

"So what", you might be wondering, "has any of this to do with measuring sticks calibrated to 1/100th of an inch?

Well, I have discovered an interesting thing while drilling new parts to go on where the factory-installed new parts were just removed. Apparently boat builders don't own ANY kind of measuring device. Just “punching a hole” is the way they roll. As a result a row of holes for a hand rail will not end up centered in the fiberglass molded into the top of the cabin, but will angle across it. The hole at one end fouling the inboard edge, the hole at the other bored through the outboard edge. The rail is not aligned with the center axis of the boat on the outside. Worse, on the inside, the bolts get tangled up with the edges of things like interior panels. The builder didn't notice or care because, at the factory, the rails went on before the interior went in. And no one (but me apparently) notices that the rails are not mounted square on the boat.

But it sure matters to the person trying to change the rail without trashing nice looking wood bits. This particular goof changed the 5 minute job of removing three nuts and then installing three nuts into a 45 minute exercise in switching wrenches, getting a half-flat turn, climbing back outside the boat to tap the bolt in a little deeper, and climbing back inside to get another half-flat turn. There are, keep in mind, gobs of sealer involved since these are outside-to-inside bolts; sealer that can't be allowed to touch any part of the interior. Hands, tools, and clothing to be checked and cleaned as necessary on each trip to the cabin top and back, just to be sure. Leaving a big smudge of 5200 on the seat at the table would be a major faux pas.

And that is the easy, port side, install. How the starboard side will go on is a mystery yet to be solved.

Just to add to the fun yesterday - pretty much right in the middle of this exercise - a broker showed up to show the boat to prospective buyers! So there I am, tools carefully placed so as not to be touching any new surface, shirt sweat soaked, bits and parts scattered everywhere, smiling and happy at having the chance to work on such a pretty, well constructed, and first class boat. (You didn't know that acting is a required skill for anyone working in retail maintenance?)

Now I have to admit that “just punching a hole” can be liberating. Chuck up a bit, pick a spot somewhere in the general vicinity, pull the trigger and set fiberglass dust to flying. No messing around measuring things and leaving pencil marks, lining stuff up with other stuff or worrying about straight lines. Just make a hole.

Close enough is good enough.

On the other hand...list price for this Tug is $288,000. One would think, for that kind of money, they could afford a couple of measuring sticks. Not necessarily ones marked in 1/100th, but hitting it within a inch or so shouldn't be too much to ask.

Should it?

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