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Boston Herald.com

"A Radical Turn: Robin Becomes A Mechanic"

Wednesday, August 23, 2000, by Azell Murphy Cavaan

Ask a group of aviation maintenance technicians what got them started in the business, and many will mention a love of aviation, a skill with fixing things, and friends and role models showing them the way. Few, though, will point out that their background and work in anthropology, social work and massage therapy were steps in a pathway leading to the ultimate job of being an airplane mechanic. For some mechanics, particularly females, the pathway to aviation maintenance is not always straight or clear.

Robin Marie Rauschkolb Lamar is a valued night-shift mechanic for United, but says she was born a "normal girl." Raised primarily in California, in the 1960s she bounced around most of the colleges in Los Angeles, eventually earning a degree in anthropology from California State University at Northridge. Within days of graduation, she began a trip around the United States and the world.

Throughout her travels, Robin met with people who encouraged her to "keep doing what you're doing" and "follow your dream no matter where it leads you." Robin's dream lead her to employment as a social worker in a U.S. juvenile hall, a governess in France, a machinist in Switzerland, a janitor in Denmark, and then a massage therapist in California. She eventually returned to the United States and was hired by IBM in the early 1980s.

Recognizing her superior manual dexterity and skills with people, IBM trained Robin to repair Selectric typewriters, word processing equipment and dictating machines. She was one of few women in IBM's Office Products Maintenance department and was the first person at IBM to complete repair work on all four series of IBM's Mag Cards. She describes the suits and heels that she wore during her five years at the company as "very different" from her current work attire.

Robin received many certificates and awards for her excellence at difficult repair work, and she remembers fondly the encouragement other women gave her when she was visiting customers. "Secretaries and office workers would stand up and cheer for me when I came into the room to repair their machines," she said.

Robin left IBM to assist a friend battling a terminal illness. After set-tling his estate, she began preparing for her relocation to Europe. Her plans took another radical turn, however, when she decided to fol-low the recommendation of a hand- lettered sign outside of an A&P school.

Robin knew she loved flying, hav-ing taken occasional introduction to flying classes since she was in her twenties. The friendly women pilots and instructors, Robin said, "let me know that there was a place in avia-tion for me."

Intrigued by the words, "Get your A&P, work on airplanes," Robin looked into classes at West Los Angeles Community College. She said she was "turned on by the titles of the classes" and that they were a good deal for the money. So at 37, she enrolled in A&P school.

It was after one of her first classes, when she ended up telling her friends about carburetors for two hours, that she knew she had found her calling. "Finally, I wanted to succeed like I've never succeeded before ' " she said. "I knew there was no way I could just be average, not if I wanted to work in a field dominated by men."

Robin worked hard and got good grades; and she won grants and scholarships. She attributes much of that early success to the tremendous support she received from unex-pected places-teachers, garage mechanics, and people she'd never met before. "It was difficult for some of my family to understand how serious I was about becoming a on my boyfriend for a lot of support."

Robin worked at a Santa Monica Airport FBO as a receptionist during the first semester of school. Her - intention had been to work out of the back of her truck, servicing general aviation aircraft throughout Northern California, when she graduated.

Then she met her first big plane.

"I knew I had to be on jets," she said. Thanks to the award of a substantial scholarship from the Aero Club of Southern California. Trans World Airlines heard about Robin and called her school to get more information. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her class in 1989, and TWA was eager to add Robin to a group of about 50 new hires.

TWA hadn't hired a mechanic at the Los Angeles Airport for 14 years, and it had hired very few people systemwide. In addition to the discomfort of being one of the new people, Robin was one of three female technicians in a group of 300 TWA maintenance people at LAX.

Knowing that she was the first woman to arrive for work on the ramp there, Robin had to muster considerable courage to get out of her car on the first day. "I was anxious because I had put all that money and time into being there, and yet [compared to what I needed to know to do the job] I knew nothing." Even after two years of school, getting your mechanic's certificate is only a "license to learn."

"During your orientation, you fill out forms and learn where the bath rooms are, and on your probation you spent time on the day, swing and graveyard shifts," Robin said. "But it is when you hold a flashlight for other mechanics or sit with them on a break that the real learning occurs."

New employees were traditionally paired with veteran mechanics to learn the ropes, and Robin was paired with "a gruff-talking, nasty looking New Yorker." She now describes him as a mentor and a friend, someone who helped teach her about jets and about the culture of a hangar.

In the beginning, there was so much new information that she frequently wished for the opportunity to repeat a repair procedure. In addition, it was difficult for the many of the mechanics to relax and speak freely around her, and it took years for some to stop calling her "Honey."

Robin persevered more than she pushed, and the others came to accept that she was just another person getting the job done. She remembers a time when she would sit down with the other mechanics and talk would cease. "It was uncomfortable for everyone," she said. "But you want to find the courage to just stay there because you need to learn from them and get along with them. You sit there until the discomfort goes away."

Occasionally, she faced open hostility. She recalled one coworker who was so unsuccessful at repeated efforts to rile her that he finally asked, "Don't you ever get angry?" She knew, though, that the irritations were not important. "He was an excellent mechanic, and I learned a lot from him."

"Nobody in that culture just walks in and is accepted. Every new per-son will be tested, not just women. Only time will prove that you have what it takes." By time, Robin means more than a month or two. "You're not really pulling your own weight until you've been there for five years," she said.

During Robin's fifth year on the job, she was among 400 TWA workers laid off in Los Angles. At the time, the newlywed was wary about the industry and was not interested in moving or commuting across the country. Instead, she took advantage of the training that her union had negotiated, and she leaned and practiced commercial, residential electricity and construction technology for three years.

While training for a new career, she was missing aviation. When she was offered a chance to substitute teach aviation maintenance at her alma mater, she jumped at it. "I became a full-time sub after two days notice," she said. "This indus-try is a passion. You may find a few that say it is just a job, but for most it is an overwhelming force in your life."

Three years after leaving TWA, the company recalled its mechanics Robin, who had moved away from the airport, was told that she could have her job back if she started within a couple of days. She and her husband talked about it and decided to move back to LA. They spent the first year back renovating their house; they were settling down.
When TWA ran into financial prob-lems again, she accepted a job as a line mechanic with United Airlines. She's been happily working for United in LA for four years, and she still substitute teaches aviation maintenance on a college level. In addition, she gives community out reach talks about nontraditional careers and aviation. She is a co-founder of the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance (AWAM).

AWAM has changed her life, open-ing up new opportunities to pro-mote a job that she loves. Looking back, she said that her background taught her about how a body and mind are put together, and now she is applying that to repair-ing the body of an aircraft and fit-ting into the culture of a hangar. The new leadership skills she is learning are helping her think about manage-rial jobs in a new light. "I'm starting to think about applying for manage-ment type jobs," she said. "One of my aspirations if I'm not wrenching is a leadership role at PAMA, per-haps even as President."

Reprinted with permission from PAMA's Mx Magazine, Winter 2001. Artical and photos scanned.


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