AIN Blog: Take Time To Mentor Young People

 - December 12, 2011, 7:35 AM
Barrington Irving
With his foundation, Experience Aviation, Barrington Irving works to get young people interested in aviation. (Photo: Cy Cyr)

From time to time Rocky and I entertain friends. Generally, as a 14-year-old golden retriever, he shows a lot of enthusiasm when someone first arrives but before long he ends up lying on his back in his semi-comatose, tongue hanging out, nap mode with his paws twitching in response to dreams of birds long ago retrieved. This time was different.

A friend had called to tell me she had a new female golden retriever puppy named Callie. Knowing we had recently lost Megan, Rocky’s life mate of 13 years, she thought Rocky might like meeting her. I thought at best he’d probably ignore all that puppy energy and continue about the important business of storing up energy for a good night’s sleep later.

Callie trotted in the door and sniffed around. It suddenly occurred to her there was another dog in the house. She ran to Rocky and plopped down on top of him and started chewing his ear. He opened one eye to check out the situation, and I was sure it was going to be a pivotal point in the puppy’s predictably short life.

Instead, he flipped over, throwing her off and dropped into that low-bow play stance. For over an hour he would bait her, do something silly to her and she’d repeat it on him. Then he started presenting a plush squeak toy to her, she’d grab one end and he taught her to play tug of war; we sat for over an hour watching Rocky teach the puppy how to play. Periodically he’d yipe when she fanged his ear, nose or leg and then would bat her with his paw in punishment before going back to teaching her how to play nice.

He endured a fair amount of pain in that hour and was still the happiest he’d been since Megan died several weeks earlier. Rocky was mentoring Callie. He was passing on tribal knowledge, teaching her what puppies do.  After my friend left with Callie, Rocky immediately plopped down, rolled onto his back and went into energyconservation of  mode. I could see a fresh drop of blood on one ear flap where she’d fanged him with one of her tiny, razor-sharp teeth.

I sat there watching him nap and pondered how innate the need was for him to teach that puppy. At his age he certainly prefers napping to anything else, yet he endured fang wounds and an hour of high-energy output because something deep inside him said he had to mentor that puppy.

Callie and Rocky made me think back 40 years to my early days in aviation. It was common for corporate aircraft to pull up on the ramp at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Aviation and drop off used parts and other equipment so students in the maintenance and flight programs could get some exposure to the real world of aviation. It was rare when a corporate pilot didn’t gladly let a student climb aboard to sit in the cockpit and ask questions while the passengers were away on business.

On more occasions than I can remember, pilots, including airline pilots, wouldn’t grab that quick sandwich or get a couple minutes of shut-eye because one of us was there peppering them with questions. Like Rocky, they endured and genuinely enjoyed mentoring the next generation.

Not a day goes by when I’m interviewing MRO management that the problem of finding maintenance technicians comes up. I constantly hear, “If we had more technicians I could bring in more business. We just can’t find qualified maintenance technicians.”

What happened to mentoring in our industry, to passing on tribal knowledge? What happened to nurturing those who want to get in? Why don’t we give schools that broken part or component?

The time has come for each of us to mentor young people and help them get into our industry. Visit schools, talk to Boy Scout troops and Explorer posts or start a Boy Scout venture crew. Sure, it’s time consuming and takes a lot of commitment, but you’re going to feel a true sense of accomplishment and you’ll do our industry a lot of good. As for the occasional fang wound: it just adds character.