Me: You’re a flight engineer for the United States Air Force. Would it be reasonable to assume you like working with airplanes?
TSgt Kamanu Fernandez: I’ve been infatuated with airplanes since I could walk. My grandpa and I would sit at the end of the runway and watch the planes go by. I joined the Air Force in 2003. I was an aircraft electrician first. When I was studying and learning about planes, it wasn’t like work. It was more like a hobby.
Me: What’s it like to deal with an emergency mid-flight?
TSgt Fernandez: Any malfunctions or in-flight emergencies, I try to eliminate the malfunctions to make sure we can still complete the missions. For emergencies, my goal is to mitigate the problem, isolate it, and get the aircraft back on the ground. About five months ago, we had one of the larger emergencies that the FAA considered an emergency. For the Air Force, anything we have to open up an emergency check list for, it’s considered an emergency even if the FAA doesn’t recognize it as an emergency. We had taken off for a mission on the east coast and then we had an engine fire. I was like, ‘Oh, cool, I’ve never had one of these before!’ It was a malfunction in one of our engines that required us to shut it down. I just explained to the others, ‘Right now, we have indications of a fire. We visually don’t see a fire, but we’re going to honor the light…’ We then worked on an evacuation plan.
Me: Hearing the words fire and malfunction while on a plane can be pretty unsettling. How do you manage to stay calm?
TSgt Fernandez: They call it being snake bit. I’ve had a lot of emergencies aboard aircrafts. Just the training you go through, you almost have this weird separation between reality and simulation. You do it so much in the simulator that when it happens in the airplane, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m back in the sim.’ You just handle it like you’re back in the simulator. Over the years, you tend to gain more knowledge and experience over the systems and how they operate, so you can mitigate a lot of the problems before they become emergencies.
Most of our pilots are good about trusting engineers because of our training, same with navigators. We have this running joke. You have the pilot, the engineer, and the navigator. The navigator’s going to get you lost, the engineer’s going to get you killed, and the pilot’s going to crash the aircraft. So what’s the pilot’s job? Not to let the engineer kill you. What’s the engineer’s job? Not to let the pilot crash the plane and to make sure the navigator doesn’t get us lost. The navigator makes sure we don’t break the plane or get ourselves killed. You’re always cross checking each other’s jobs. There’s a ton, a huge sense of trust and responsibility built into what we all do.
Me: Confessions of a flight engineer. Go!
TSgt Fernandez: We like to sing. We do. When you deploy and take off, you’re usually really busy for about the first few hours. Then you have a long trek into another country or where ever you’re going. That’s usually a very boring time because you’re not on station yet. You can’t listen to the radio…Everybody knows Disney songs. I once ran up almost $100 worth of Disney albums on iTunes. We love Aladdin’s A Whole New World. The navigators went for a while on the Aladdin album when we were flying over the Middle East. How fitting is that? It was very entertaining.
Some of us are really superstitious. I stopped bringing chicken on the airplane for the longest time because every time I brought chicken on the plane, something broke or we had emergencies…On some of our best flights, we had this pink pony on a stick, like a little kid’s stick horse. We started to carry the pink pony in my backpack. The days I didn’t have it were when we’d have problems. So now we strap it next to the window on the plane.
Most flight engineers were prior maintainers. So there are practical jokes we pull on the maintenance side. We control the power, the heating and cooling, all the environmental aspects of the airplane. So if you have a crew that’s being annoying, you can make them really, really cold or really, really hot!
There are also some jokes that make the time pass faster when we’re stuck in an aluminum tube. One of my buddies loves to give out hydrogenated, super sugary, super fatty and carb loaded snacks on the flights, like Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. Our lavatory on the planes is not the neatest. Another buddy used a chocolate muffin and molded it into a shape of a turd. He left it on the floor before walking out nonchalantly. We do stuff like that to keep ourselves entertained on 16 hour flights. For me, it’s all about the camaraderie.