After interviewing my local UPS delivery driver Vince Nanni last fall, I was curious to know more about the legions of workers who make it possible to send an overnight package from Seattle to my Philadelphia home. Vince was only the endpoint to delivery, but what about the warehouse workers, aircrews, truckers, clerks, and innumerable others along the way? After all, UPS employs over 540,000 people across the globe.
Here’s my interview with Eddie Soto, an aircraft maintenance technician based at the company’s second-largest air hub on the outskirts of Philadelphia’s airport. Two weeks ago, I drove out to this hub, located almost at the end of a long, curving road that separates the airport’s chain-link fence enclosure from the Delaware River. The passenger terminals seemed so far away that they might have been for another airport altogether.
At the security gate, I was met by UPS Spokesperson, Carmen Ballon. She led me to the check-in where they took my driver’s license, snapped my photograph, and gave me a bright orange armband within which to put my visitor’s pass. Then it was through the metal detector, followed by a search of my computer bag, and a no-touch frisking with a wand. After that, I was taken by truck through a sea of shiny metal package containers and across the edge of the tarmac. Several UPS cargo airplanes stood in the near distance. One was being unloaded with a fleet of vehicles and lifts. Several others stood idle.
We stopped midway across a rectangular behemoth of a building that stretched several football fields long. Most of it was used to receive and sort packages. The warehouse also contains offices and lounges for its staff. Entering it was a welcome relief from the blasts of frigid winter air coming off the river. The area is flat as a pancake, and there are few shelters from the wind.
Inside one of the offices, I sat down with Eddie. We had a good long talk there before venturing out to the tarmac where he gave me a tour of a cargo plane and walked me around its exterior, showing me part of his work to give the plane a visual inspection once it arrives in Philadelphia. Here is our conversation, edited and rearranged for clarity.
In broad strokes, tell me what you do here.
I’m one of 49 mechanics that work on airplanes. We cover everything. Nothing is off-limits as far as systems are concerned. In the morning, we’ll arrive, and Todd (Eddie’s boss) will hand out assignments for certain browntails (planes) to certain people and then we’ll get our trucks ready and head on out. We have maintenance on the planes that we do here on an everyday basis, including for several international flights. We have several spare aircraft during the day which are here for extended ground time. The company utilizes this opportunity to perform scheduled maintenance, which target specific systems or components on the avionics systems, airframe, or power plant. Sometimes we’ll be assigned to work on an aircraft that went out of service from the previous Next Day Air operation.
The 747 we’re assigned to is an inbound flight from Cologne, Germany. There will be two mechanics from our department who will be assigned to it. We split the plane into two, inspecting it on either side from nose to tail. It’s called a walkaround. That’s a general look for something obvious that might be wrong. There might be damage from something on the runway. There might be a crack or a leak. We look for holes in the tires, a tear in a hydraulic line, broken sensors, loose springs, nicks in the engine blades, signs of brake wear, metal where metal shouldn’t be, and a lot more. We have flowcharts to follow and checklists.
Once we do that, we’ll debrief the flight crew. They might tell us the plane is in fine shape or they might have some issues that they encountered during the flight. They’ll write these in their logbook, but they’ll also often give us a verbal explanation of what went wrong. Maybe it’s as simple as a light bulb out in the cockpit. Other times, like last week, it was some unusual vibrations in the engine. That might be normal, depending on the weather, but it might be an issue too.
On my shift, I’ll typically work on a big jumbo plane in the morning, an international flight. Then in the afternoon, a plane will come in from the West Coast. Then maybe I’ll work on one more. I work a 13-hour shift, three days a week.
What do you do the other four days?
Cars. My off time is spent working on my classic vehicles. I just purchased another which will keep me busy until the show season starts in the spring.
Is there extra pressure being an airline mechanic versus say one who works on cars?
You can always pull a car over to the side of the road. In a plane, you can’t pull over. So, when I sign that logbook, and I’m looking at the pilots in their faces and telling them that their planes are ready to go, that’s a big responsibility.
Did you ever think about being a pilot yourself?
It never really crossed my mind. Growing up, I thought I’d have to join the military for work, but there was no way I could pass the physical because I have Type 1 diabetes. I’m sure there are provisions so you can fly, but just in my head, I’m always thinking the worst. I’ve had two seizures over the years, luckily my wife was there. Sometimes when you’re working here, you can’t stop, but I must. I’ve got everybody here trained. And if I say I gotta go eat, they already know why, and I just go.
Let’s take a step back and talk about your upbringing. Were you always interested in planes?
I was born in Bronx, New York. My parents were from Puerto Rico. My mother was a seamstress for fifty years, and my stepdad was an orderly in a psychiatric hospital on Wards Island. Sometimes, he would take me to work. It was definitely eye-opening. The patients wanted to talk to me, and my stepdad would keep me away from them. When you’re young, you want to talk to whoever, right?
I grew up mainly in Soundview. It was like the suburbs. At first, we lived on the third floor of a townhouse. An apartment. Then, about ten years later, my parents bought the house next door. We lived on the main floor and rented the third floor.
Since both of my parents worked, they used to send me every summer to Puerto Rico. That’s where the airplanes come in. The first thing I remember was the smell. The jet fuel. It catches your attention and back then, airplanes weren’t very efficient. You’re flying by yourself in these big planes, looking out the window. Sometimes, I’d just sit there and think “How does something like this even stay in the air.” I was always curious. That was the best part of the vacation. The plane ride. Just flying.
Were you always mechanically inclined?
In the Bronx, we had a neighbor, John Vega. He was a custodian at Columbia University, but he was big into cars, classic cars. I remember he had a ’64 Nova, and he was always doing something to it. He invited me to come down and work on it with him. He kept me busy and out of trouble. John was my mentor in life. He was in his twenties. My best friend and I, we’d play sports together with John, then work on his cars. Every day, seven days a week. We were always on the street, doing things with his car.
What amazed me was John would buy all these old rusty parts. He’d hand me a drill with a wire brush attachment, and he’d tell me to clean up these parts. Once finished, they looked brand new. Then we’d put them in the car and get it to run. We’d take engines apart and put them back together. We also removed and replaced transmissions and differentials.
Did you ever rebuild a car for yourself?
In high school, I started on one. I had saved up some money working in a supermarket, stocking shelves. I bought an ugly yellow 69 Camaro, paid $600 for it. It was just sitting in somebody’s yard, not running. But it was a Camaro.
So you loved planes, but how does one go about translating that into fixing planes for a living?
I had another friend, Marty Santiago, who lived on the same block, a couple of houses away. He was an airline mechanic. Sometimes, he would take me to work with him on the midnight shift at Newark Airport. I’d spend my nights there, watching him work and being blown away. The size of these airplanes, you know. And when the engines were opened up, you could see all this magic. I wanted to learn to do what he did. There’d be a bunch of passenger planes on the ground at night. The whole airport was quiet but this place. The crews would be working to get them ready for the morning. Everything seemed choreographed. These guys work on one plane, finish up, then help other mechanics fix another one. Being part of a gang, a team, was part of the attraction too.
Marty knew this is what I wanted. He told me about the life. “You got to come work late at night, often in bad weather…that’s the environment, that’s not for everybody.” It was for me.
What was the next step then?
Marty had gone to Aviation High School. He told me about it when I was in middle school. Back then, you’d get a big book from the city, and you’d pick a high school, kind of like you pick a college. If you’re interested in art and design, there was a school for it. If it was maritime work, they had a school for it. Dance. The performing arts. For Aviation, there was an entrance exam and an interview. I was really nervous.
My mother used to say to me: “Do something that you love because I don’t want you to do what I did.” To struggle, she meant, so that’s always in the back of my head. You realize how hard your parents worked to get you to a place to accomplish these goals, and you make it a mission to get that done. I got into Aviation. I was like, phase one, done. Now I have to get through school.
The commute, that was scary. It was a bus and two trains to reach the school in Long Island City, Queens. It took over an hour, and I was alone when I started. But Aviation School was probably the best four years of my life. We had a graduating class of 600. It’s vocational, technical. We had our own hangar. We also did woodwork, sheet metal welding, all kinds of stuff. As the four years went on, you had to choose what ‘ticket’ you wanted to get. Airframe. Or Powerplant. You need both to be an airline mechanic, but because they cut funding at Aviation when I was there, you could only get one ticket. I did powerplant and graduated. Then I spent a year at Teterboro Technical School of Aeronautics and got my other ticket in airframe.
How’d you end up working for UPS?
While I was studying at Teterboro, Marty got me a job at night for Butler Aviation. They did contract work, and one of their jobs was loading and unloading UPS planes. So I did that for a little bit over minimum wage, but the whole time I was seeking out the mechanics, striking up conversations, getting taken under their wings, and watching what they do every day. That’s how things worked back then. Who do you know? So some mechanics who worked for Orion, another contractor for UPS, they asked me when I’m graduating, and they’re telling me to hurry up because the open job slots will be gone soon. I was always there, a thorn in their side kind of, making friends. When I graduated in 1985, Orion hired me straightway, which was rare back then. I was still just a kid. Twenty years old. Actually, I had two full-time jobs on the same ramp. A company called Evergreen in the afternoon. Then Orion at midnight. When UPS started its own airline with its own pilots and crews and mechanics, I started with them. That was in 1988. UPS Airlines recently turned 35 years old this month.
So, what makes a good airline mechanic?
Everybody begins with doing basic maintenance. Tire changes, things like that. Then you work your way up. If there’s something critical that you’ve never worked on, you tag along with another mechanic and watch and learn.
If you can learn how to get through the material—there’s manuals on every system and its components—and you can figure out how they work from point A to point B to C, everything else is second nature. You must know how to use your hands too. You have to know how to use tools and use the right tool for the right job. You can read. Good. You just gotta have the desire to do it. That’s it. Over time, you build knowledge. You can’t know everything. You learn something new every day in this job.
If you’re ever unsure, there’s a team here. You can always lean on somebody else to look over your work or help you. The whole operation is like that. We’re just a little piece of the puzzle out here. There are lots of moving parts. You got load people, the fuelers, operations.
Do you and other mechanics here specialize in certain systems?
We tackle everything. At some carriers, you’ll have your electronic guys and those who just do rigging. Here, there’s no limit as to what you can do from avionics, to radios, to engines, to cargo doors, to the brakes, to the hydraulic systems. It might take you a little longer to fix if you’ve never done it before, but there’s a manual, and you have your experience to fall back on, and it’s not always our show. We have resources in Louisville (UPS’s main air hub) to contact. We have engineers and lead technicians there, and we’re on the phone with people all the time. Sometimes, they’ll build up a work package for us to use to troubleshoot.
Would you say nothing’s unfixable?
Well, I’ve been here 35 years, and we’ve fixed every airplane that has come along.
Are you ready to retire?
It went fast. I mean, I got guys working here now that weren't even born when I was already working. But I tell people that the day I walk out of my house, and I don’t look up when there’s an airplane in the sky, that’s when I’ll retire. That hasn’t happened yet. I still come out here on the tarmac, and if a plane is taking off, I’ll turn and watch in amazement. I still do. All these [Eddie gestures toward the framed photographs of airplanes that line almost every wall in the offices] I took them. Let’s go see some.
Thanks to Eddie for the wonderful conversation, and the UPS folks for the generous tour of their airhub. Until next time. Have a good weekend! Go Birds!
Our word, which requires Eddies and those like him. Learning any career path will be available to the interested.
hard-working guys like Eddie are much of the reason modern aviation is so safe.