Gus Slattery has been working in the Aerospace industry for 40 years. So you might assume that he’s crazy about aircraft. But you’d be wrong. ”I have never been an aircraft enthusiast,” he says. “My cousin is an aircraft spotter, and he would kill for my job. I’d much rather be gardening,” he says. As Technical Service Manager for Aerospace Asia Pacific (APAC) region, Gus brings his unique brand of honesty and humour to work every day. And he encourages his team of technicians to do the same.

In 1979, Gus joined the RAAF and passed the Surface Finisher course. “I joined the Air Force to learn how to spray paint, so I could go back home and paint murals on panel vans and the like,” Gus recalls. “Now, I find myself travelling all over Asia, assisting with the application of murals on aircraft.” After his training, Gus spent two years painting Mirage fighter jets. “We called them ‘The French Ladies’,” he recalls.

Gus Slattery

A career takes shape

Next, Gus spent three years in Malaysia working on fighters before transferring to Richmond, Australia. “It was the best paint facility in the southern hemisphere,” Gus recalls. “Fully enclosed, temperature- and humidity-controlled. I spent the next three years swimming in Turco T5-351 paint stripper. It was my job to strip and repaint C-130 Hercs, AP-C3 Orions and Caribous.”

Gus left the RAAF in 1988, and took a job at Hawker de Havilland, now known as Boeing Aerospace Australia. “But to me, the company will always be affectionately known as ‘Dirty Harry’,” Gus laughs. “I was hired as Paintshop Foreman, End Line. I got the job because no one else could paint camouflage freehand, and I could.  I’d spent three years in Richmond doing just that. There were six unfinished Black Hawks at Dirty Harry when I arrived, but the program got back on track very quickly after I started.”

The AkzoNobel connection

Gus left HdH in 1998 to join the team at AkzoNobel. He trains and leads the technical teams responsible for painting and coating aircraft throughout APAC. “My favourite thing about my job is definitely training,” Gus says. “I love taking smelly painters – as we are commonly known – and turning them into Aerospace Finishers. It’s a joy to see new painters (and some old ones) take pride in themselves and what they do.”

That pride comes from total commitment to the task at hand, Gus explains. “In APAC, we have always taken pride in the degree of technical service that we provide. The modular training program is just the start,” he says. “When we support an aircraft repaint – and I’ve supported hundreds – we normally arrive when the aircraft is in pre-treatment. And we don’t leave until it is complete and signed off.”

Gus Slattery

Leading by example

Gus has learned a great deal in his 21 years in APAC. For starters, culture makes a difference. “One lesson you must learn very quickly in APAC is that you must never cause anyone to lose face. It can lose business very quickly,” Gus explains.

More importantly, Gus believes that honesty and integrity are the keys to quality service. “As tech guys, we’re on call 24/7. Customers really appreciate a quick answer, especially if they are about to paint.” But Gus cautions that ‘quick’ doesn’t mean sloppy. “I live by the rules of honesty and integrity, and I have those in my charge do the same. It’s not a crime to not know the answer to something. But the ability to admit it and get back to the customer with an answer quickly is really appreciated.”

Facing the challenges

With his 40 years of experience, there’s very little that ruffles Gus’ feathers when it comes to the work. But the challenges of modern technology sometimes leave him baffled. “I was born in 1960 with a 3GB chip. I find myself living in a 10GB chip world,” he says. “I tend to struggle with IT, and as the company has rapidly moved along with IT to maintain a competitive advantage, I’m afraid this old dinosaur struggles to keep up.” Gus even resists the mobile revolution. “As smart as I’m told it is, my mobile phone is still just a phone. There are no apps on it. Give me back my little Sony flip phone that neatly clipped on my belt, any day.”

As far as industry challenges, Gus dreams of a day when Computerised Robotic Stripping is normal practice; and chemical paint stripping is a thing of the past. “I actually based my Master’s thesis on this 25 years ago,” he says.

What’s more, “the industry is now moving towards all-composite fuselages and more. Having worked on a few 787s, I have seen the challenges that lie ahead,” Gus says. “Who knows, a few years from now, we may not even be applying paint. Color impregnated composites, films and adhesives are all possible alternatives for the future.”

Whatever changes come, Gus and his team will be ready. So, what does it take to be an outstanding Aerospace Finisher? According to Gus, it takes “the hands of a surgeon, the eyes of an eagle and the patience of a watchmaker.” And, in Gus’ case, the personality of a gardener.