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Benton Spencer helped pare 25 toolboxes down to two

By Hilary Reeves

In 2015, Northern Air Maintenance Services (NAMS) had 25 toolboxes containing some 20,000 tools spread across its Anchorage hanger. Tool accountability is critical in aviation – a misplaced screwdriver in an electrical panel or a wrench left rattling around in the landing gear could cause significant damage to a plane and its passengers. When a customer asked NAMS General Manager Brian Heath to develop a tool-control program that would achieve 100-percent accountability, Heath tapped Maintenance Foreman Benton Spencer to lead a team tasked with creating a single list of tools culled from the experience and advice of every mechanic in the shop.

“Brian began with what he already knew about tool control from the Air Force, and he developed a program that would meet the customer’s requirements,” said Spencer. “Our team came up with the initial tool list, drawing on years of maintenance experience and from the suggestions offered by out mechanics.”

Spencer hails from Kentucky, the youngest of five children. His father, who worked in the coal industry, started teaching Spencer how to fix things at a young age.

“I wanted to be a Marine when I was a kid,” he said. “I joined the Marine Corp while I was still in high school. I served four years. I tried several career paths after the Marines. My brother, who had been an aircraft mechanic for many years, helped me get started in aviation. He taught me to do sheetmetal while I was going to (Airframe & Powerplant) school, and he got me a job working nights at an (Fixed-Base Operator) repair shop, cleaning aircraft bellies and removing/installing panels.”

Spencer’s brother also introduced him to the Director of Maintenance at Northern Air Cargo (NAC) in 2004, and he was hired there that year.

“NAC has been the best job I’ve ever had,” Spencer shared. “In 2012, I heard that NAMS had a great (Director of Maintenance) in Brian Heath. I was working the night shift as an inspector for NAC and a Shift Foreman position came open at NAMS. When I interviewed, I noticed right away the professionalism and accountability – mostly due to Brian’s leadership.”

Spencer’s day typically starts at 2:30 a.m. He drives 57 miles from Wasilla to Anchorage, punching in at 5 a.m. for the daily safety briefing and roll call. Up next: preparing the aircraft for morning departures. When the aircraft return from their morning flights, the mechanics fix any problems they might have had before they depart again.

“The aircraft scheduled for that day’s flights are usually up by 9 a.m., and then we have some time to work on projects like the toolbox control project,” he said. “After we had considered everyone’s suggestions, we had to decide how to arrange the tools in a 54-inch toolbox, leaving room for future expansion.”

Spencer worked for more than a year with a Snap-on industrial representative to decide which tools would make the cut and how they would be arranged. Snap-on is an American designer and manufacturer of high-end tools and equipment for professional use. Spencer went through 21 revisions to get to the finished product.

Close shot of Benton in his workshop.“We now have two 54-inch hanger toolboxes that have identical tool sets inside of them,” he said. “We have one red box, one black box, 21 mechanics and three inspectors monitoring the two kits.”

Spencer said the best part of his job is leading a group of people who are professional and understand accountability – both to customers and to the company – and who strive for professionalism, wanting to be held to a higher standard.

“As a leader, my greatest challenge has been learning to communicate with folks in a way that causes them to want to follow my direction,” he said. “I want to be a leader that folks want to follow.”

Spencer enjoys fishing and hunting Alaska’s rugged terrain with his wife, and is passionate about his faith in God.

“If I could change one thing about my past, I would have surrendered my life to Jesus Christ at a much younger age.”

And the toolbox control project, he said, remains ongoing.

“We do annual audits of all the data from the past year and adjust the inventory. We can adjust to the changing needs of our customers and our mechanics. The Snap-on toolbox is versatile, and could be used in almost any industry. The process works great, the toolboxes work great, and everyone can go home knowing for a fact that all the tools that they used that day are accounted for.”