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Although we had everything needed to totally disassemble the Falcon 20 in the “D” inspection, there were some tasks that simply had to be contracted out. One of those was the dropping and cleaning of the fuel tanks.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the fuel tanks on aircraft such as this, in the case of the wing storage, there really is no “tank” at all. The fuel is housed inside the wing itself and resides among the spars.

The Falcon 20 does indeed also have two actual tanks in the aft fuselage, but most of the cleaning process in the “D” inspection involved the wing tanks. For that Aero Services brought in a specialist in wing tank cleaning. That was a fellow by the name of Leroy Toro and he was said to be the master of aircraft tank cleaning. He was contracted to fly in from south Florida with his crew to get the job done.

By 1985 I had already spent four years living in Florida and working assorted minim wage jobs in the effort to work my way through Embry-Riddle. It was the early 1980s and the national recession made getting any job in Michigan impossible until late 84. In Florida, and especially Daytona, it was fairly easy to gain employment. The hotels along the beach side alone hired anyone right off the street. Thus you often found yourself working with some really rag-tag people. The establishments that needed this ready labor usually did not hold back the first week’s pay, there was no state income tax and some places, such as Kmart paid in cash every week. Transients would work for one or two paydays and then either get fired or just move on. I’d been hired on the labor crew at the Daytona Plaza hotel in January of 83 just by walking in and asking for a job. They hired seven of us that day- by the next week there was only me remaining. Of course they hired six new faces. Three months later I’d seen a lot of the rag-tags come and go and I was actually a senior employee. Still a lot of dirty jobs got done and the weekly cash helped me pay for some of my school and feed myself until I found it worthwhile to head back to Michigan for a year. Yep- I was just as rag-tag as everyone else. Thus, when Mr. Toro brought his crew into Hangar 6 I easily recognized a bunch of my fellow Florida rag-tags hired on to do a very dirty job.

As Mr. Toro and our general manager went over the specifics of what his crew was going to do, our GM thought pensively for a while and then vanished into his office. Later that day he came into the lunch room and told us all that everyone was going to get a four day vacation! This was because one of the largest steps in the tank cleaning process involved actually spraying CH3C(O)CH2CH3 into the tank spaces after they had opened them up. What’s CH3C(O)CH2CH3? It’s the chemical formula for methyl ethyl ketone, or MEK. Anyone working in most industries or especially paint and body shops knows MEK as a great solvent and when exposed to it in modest amounts the worst it will do is make your eyes burn or your throat sore. But, when sprayed it can, like any solvent, pose serious health hazards and can be highly flammable. Aero Services was taking no chances. I  immediately began planning my summer trip up north to camp and watch the lakeboats go by at Sault Saint Marie.

Before they could spray, they had to drop the tanks. Normally, the inspection panels on aircraft are set in place with screws that are hand-tightened and easily removed with a speed handle. That is, unless some jackass before you has decided to use an air wrench and over-tightened them. You can usually tell when this has happened by the presence of a tell-tale tornado scratch mark next to the screw head. That says that the screw will likely strip and have to be drilled out. It also means a lot of time spent on one stinking screw- especially if the drill bit you’re using to make the tap hole breaks off in the hole! Now you’re talking a piece of hardened steel stuck in your hole and overtime on your time card… plus lots of swearing. The screws holding those fuel tanks together were not intended to be removed routinely, so their screws are not only over-tightened, but also painted in place.

Mr. Toro’s tank crew used plenty of elbow grease and just as much profanity as they put in 12 hour days to get those tanks dropped. Once the parts were on the hangar floor and the crew was ready to begin the spraying, I split with no regrets. The stuff they were cleaning away was a sealant that had been used during the construction of the wing in France. The sealant, PR-1422 and PR-1431, was a dark brown color and when you picked at it with your fingers it seemed hard a crusty. I wondered to our A.I. how some of that couldn’t help but break away and contaminate the fuel? He simply replied, “That’s what filters are for.”

By the time I’d spent four working days plus a weekend up north relaxing it was time to get back to Hangar 6 and the Falcon 20 that looked a lot like a skeleton. There were no windows, the cockpit was empty- including the entire instrument panel, every space that could be open was now a gaping hole, both engines were off the airframe and resting on racks, the rudder and every other control surface was off… but those tanks were all sealed up nice and pretty. Mr. Toro and his crew had done their job.

Of course they left us with a hangar that smelled like MEK for the next week or so.

NEXT: Part 4, You gotta start spendin’ more.

This saga brought to you by Wes' 25th book- the aviation, spy thriller INVISIBLE EVIL ! If you're into aviation, this book will draw you in.
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“D” CHECK” Part 2


During my time flying Falcon 20s I was never afraid that some bird or even a meteor was gonna come through the cockpit windows. The reason for my lack of concern was rooted in doing that “D” check on a 20 back in the summer of 1985.

As I said earlier, during a “D” inspection anything that can come off, must come off and everything that can come out, must come out. Thus, the windows in the cockpit have to be not only removed, but completely replaced. Now, you’d think that this process would involve removing the screws around the panels that overlap the edge of the window and the aircraft’s skin, but it’s not that simple.

Falcon 20 cockpit windows showing the screws (Dassault Aviation)

Just one of the cockpit windows on a Falcon 20 would be surrounded by panels fixed in place by as many as 40 screws in total. And, just to make the job more fun, those screws were not all the exact same length. In fact there were about four different lengths in assorted areas. So, removing the screws was not a problem. Putting the darned things back in the correct holes to properly secure the new pane was the real puzzle. The answer that the guys in Hangar 6 came up with was pretty handy. It was a series of four plywood boards each of which had the outline of an individual Falcon 20 cockpit window drawn on it. Around the window drawing was a series of holes located where each screw on the actual window frame was located. Then, when you removed a screw you simply placed it in its respective hole to wait there until it was time to secure the new window. That way every screw went into its correct location.

Brilliant!... Until some klutz Polak kid who is working under the shop certificate isn’t watching where he’s going and trips over one of the boards and knocks out a bunch of the screws!

Who… me?

Well that idiot for a day happened to look a lot like me, occupied the same space, and rode my bicycle to work every day. All I’ll admit to is that I spent the remainder of an afternoon matching 32 screws to 32 holes… plus a half hour of overtime. But, I needed the money for college.

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After all of the panels are off and the window panes are left unguarded and the window heat disconnected the next task was to actually remove them. On this bird they were glued in place, probably in France… God knows when… so, knocking them out should have been no problem.


Since the windows are a part of the pressure hull, they are “plug” windows. So, the only way to get them out is the push them in. Not one would budge, and trying to pry on the seam would damage the airframe surrounding them. The final solution featured a mechanic standing on the cockpit roof (yes, you can do that on a Falcon 20- they’re built like tanks) with an eight pound no-bounce. (For those of you not familiar with the term, a “no-bounce” is a rubber hammer, and in this case it was a rubber sledge hammer). Starting over the center window and straddling the cockpit so the window was between and below his feet, he raised the no-bounce high and gave the window a hefty smack! Nothing happened, in fact the sealant around the pane didn’t even show a crack! Again he raised the no-bounce over his head like a Jedi of jet fuel and slammed it against the pane. It mocked him.

Thus, swearing was added.

I don’t recall how many hits it took but soon the attention of everyone on the crew was on him as we cat-called and goaded and he shouted naughty words and smashed harder and harder. I was starting to take bets on the window, because he was beginning to look tired. Yet, eventually the sealant began to fracture and the accursed pane of clear plastic budged. After more sweat and foul words it finally vacated its assigned position and dropped into the cockpit. Then some smart ass shouted, “Great! Only eight more to go!” Fortunately the mechanic with the no-bounce didn’t have the strength left in his hands to strangle me.

During lunch the following day we were passing around the windows and making comments. Joining us was the representative from Falcon Jet. The same mechanic who had fought the battle to get that first window out asked if he could have it? The guy from Falcon Jet said it was junk anyhow- so sure he could have it. I asked if he was gonna mount it on his wall? He replied that the heating threads that were laminated into the layers of poly-plastic-epoxy-carbonate-clear-fiberglass-PFM were supposedly made of “gold!” He figured to go home and pry it out.

Of course the next day he came into work again mocked by the window. He said the damned thing just would not come apart. That day at lunch he was telling us how he’d gotten so frustrated with that damned piece of window that he took it out behind his house and shot it with his .357 magnum! We all cracked up and asked if he could bring it in and show us? It turned out that he had it right outside in his pickup truck- so he went out and nabbed it for show-n-tell.

It was fascinating- the slug, fired from about 12 feet away and hitting nearly dead center, had penetrated about half way into the pane and then mushroomed. It left a slight bump on the inside, but didn’t deform the pane in any other way. This got the attention of the guy from Falcon Jet who asked if he could have the pane back? He was flying back to the home office the following day and wanted to show it to some of the engineers. Later he told us that they shipped it back to Dassault for study. He told us that no one had ever done that to a Falcon Jet window before.

Years later when I was done with Embry-Riddle and had gone into professional flying I found myself seated behind those cockpit windows in Falcon 20s. Even at .76 Mach I never feared anything coming through those windows. Not even a goose holding a .357 magnum pistol.

NEXT: Part 3, Toro’s tank guys.

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“D” CHECK” Part 1


This is the way an aviation mechanic pictures a corporate jet. Not quite the way most pilots see it.

I had just come home for the summer of 1985 after a very productive Junior year in the flight program at Embry-Riddle and was looking for a useful summer job. Considering that my home was located 5,747 feet from the end of Runway 5 at MBS airport, I figured that was a good place to begin my job search. Aero Services was located at Hangar 6 on the airport and, as a Falcon Jet service center, they had already hired me twice before- once as a parts department clerk and once as the hangar rat, plus my brother was previously employed there as a line guy before he left for college… thus, what the heck?

So close was the airport, with nothing but country roads surrounding it, that I just hopped on my bicycle and road over there. Dropping into the aircraft maintenance ramrod’s office, I just told him I was lookin’ for a summer job. Bob told me that he wasn’t really in need of anyone right now, so I thanked him and asked if it was okay for me to go out in the hangar and say hello to some of the guys? He said that was no problem and I proceeded out among the aircraft. Only a couple of the guys I’d worked with in the past were still there, but at the far end of the hangar was Tim. He had been the ramrod who had hired me both previous times, and was now working for another company. Today he was in with their jet getting some work done. We exchanged some friendly jabs over old times and I mentioned that I was there looking for summer work, but Bob didn’t need anyone at the moment. He wished me luck and told me to get my ass out of the hangar before I drooled on the Falcon Jets too much… owners sort of frown on that.

When I got back home my mom gave me the news that Bob had called from Hangar 6 and I was supposed to call him back right away. I knew the number by heart and when Bob answered he spoke in his normal deadpan tone. He told me that he had a Falcon 20 coming in tomorrow for a big “D” inspection that would take all summer. He said that Tim had come into his office and reminded him that my brother and I each did more work than three of their full time employees and he was a dumb ass if he didn’t hire me for this inspection.

“Be here tomorrow morning at 8:30,” Bob advised without a hint of emotion.

All United States aircraft are required to go through some sort of maintenance inspection process to ensure they are in an airworthy condition before continued operation. In the case of Dassault Falcon Jets the manufacturer put in place a series of scheduled inspections depending on aircraft operational cycles. In 1985 these were categorized as “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D” type inspections. Speaking in the most general terms, the “A” inspection is the most frequently required and the least complicated often involving replacement of light bulbs, checks of heavy wear components and non flight critical items that may have to be replaced. A “B” inspection is far more extensive involving more critical items. The “C” inspection was the big daddy where engines, landing gear and control surfaces come off, interiors get pulled and so on. By the summer of 1985, no Falcon 20 (we were told) had ever gone through enough cycles to qualify for a “D” level inspection yet still remain in service. The bird that I'd be working on had done exactly that.

Inside Hangar 6 on a busy day  in the summer of 1985 (Author's photo)

Although I cannot recall this aircraft’s exact history (keep in mind- it was a summer job and I was deep into working on it with one eye set on going back to school), some of the guys said she was an original Pan Am bird, another said she’d flown for Circus Circus and another said she’d flown in Japan for a while. It all made no difference to me. I was hired on as a mechanic working under the shop certificate. In essence what that meant was that everything I did had to be under the supervision of our shop Aircraft Maintenance Inspector (A.I.) and I was not to sign off on anything. In all, the whole summer would be a great learning experience for me. We dug into the aircraft and started dropping panels. All that was needed was a speed handle, a pocket full of tips for it and a lot of bags to put the screws into. All the while the representative from Falcon Jet kept tabs on us… this really was a “first” for the company.

In a “D” inspection everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, comes off or out. From wing bolts to cockpit windows- if it can come apart, you take it apart. The job was so labor intensive that even little Rickey the hangar rat was handed a speed handle and set to work. This was not uncommon- six years earlier when I had his job they often used me to drop panels. As it turned out- on this job they would have been $179,000 better off if they had left him with his mop and bucket working on the hangar floor.

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We’d only been at it for a couple of days and I was working on the inside of the aircraft on the aft bulkhead. I’d left to get a shop rag and when I went back into the aircraft I saw Rickey working at removing the screws from the panel on the skin beneath the droop leading edge (DLE). The flaps were down to 40 and thus the DLEs were down as well, so he had access to the panels. But, as I walked past I noticed that he wasn’t completely removing the screws. Instead he was just backing them out about 2/3 of the way. Walking back inside the aircraft toward the tail the thought struck me that it was fairly dangerous for him to be working there because one of the mechanics had a hydraulic mule hooked up and running on the aircraft’s system. Just when I decided to go back and show him how and why he should do it right, I heard the mechanic in the cockpit shout, “CLEAR FLAPS!”

It was sort of like a nightmare when you want to move fast, but everything goes into slow motion.
“Noooooo!” I shouted as I bounded for the cabin door. It was too late… as the flaps hit 15 the DLEs were triggered to retract. I arrived just in time to see Rickey pull his hands clear and then watch as the DLE retracted over those raised screws! The metal cracked, rippled and groaned with agony and it felt like someone was being tortured right in front of me.

Cost of this blunder was $179,000 and change, but it could have been far worse if little Rickie hadn’t gotten his fingers out of the way as fast as he did. The DLE was not repairable the underside nut panel was stripped, but easily repaired. Insurance, we were told, covered $125,000, but the company ate the rest. Fault was clearly the mechanic’s who should have never had a live mule running on the aircraft while someone was working on the control surfaces. No one was fired- we were just told to be more careful and press on with the inspection. We also developed the motto, "Just keep the damage under $125,000."

To this day the sight of that DLE backing up over those screws still haunts me. One of those things you just cannot un-see.

NEXT: Part 2, Magnum in the front window.

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