Jerusalem Melke has spent more sleepless nights at John F. Kennedy International Airport than even the most road-weary frequent flier, although she is there by design. Melke is an aircraft technician for JetBlue Airways, and her workday starts at 10 p.m. “The terminal is pretty desolate at night, but outside the hangar it’s bustling,” she said.
Service vehicles zip around, pulling planes and moving jet bridges. There’s engine noise, hydraulic bursts, walkie-talkie chatter and music on loudspeakers. “It could be salsa, bachata, rock, soul—it depends who puts theirs on first,” she said.
Melke and her fellow aircraft techs perform regular maintenance checks on JetBlue planes. In addition to the engines, she is responsible for anything that spins, opens, lights up or turns on—think cockpit dials, cargo doors, wing flaps, windshield wipers.
The job is part mechanic, part engineer and part ninja. “You’re climbing on things all the time—on top of the wing, under the engine, up on the tail—and you’re problem-solving,” Melke said. “I like that it’s mental and physical.”
Melke was hooked on air travel from her first flight at age 9, in 1991. Her family joined dozens of other immigrant families on a homecoming trip to Asmara, capital of the newly independent Eritrea. It was the first commercial flight into the East African city after nearly 30 years of civil war. “When we landed, everybody’s relatives were there—hundreds of people cheering as we got off the plane, like we were celebrities,” she recalled.
Eventually she learned that most flights don’t disembark to standing ovations, but that didn’t dampen the thrill of it. While in college she began taking flight lessons. “But I had so many questions about all the instruments and how they worked,” she said. “My instructor said I needed to talk to a mechanic, not a pilot.”
Melke soon realized that flying a plane wasn’t as interesting to her as learning how they work. Instead of pursuing her Federal Aviation Administration pilot’s license, she got an Airframe and Powerplant license. Her family was puzzled by her career choice. “They didn’t see it coming, but it made complete sense to me,” she said.
Before emigrating to the U.S., her father was a sailor and worked on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean. Once here, he became a taxi driver, eventually running his own fleet of five cabs. “So there’s a history of transport and mechanical ability there,” Melke said, “plus, a sense of freedom.”