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Oh, The Places You’ll Go

A Look at the World of Aviation Maintenance Operations

Source: www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/2016/media/sepoct2016.pdf, By Tom Hoffmann and Sabrina Woods

aircraft maintenance technician

As a certificated airframe and powerplant (A&P) technician, you have many different avenues you can take to embark on a successful and rewarding career. The path you choose is most likely to be based on a few personal preferences.

But first, to recap, in order to obtain an A&P certificate as a U.S. citizen, you must be at least 18 years old, be able to read, write, speak, and understand English, and you must have 18 months of practical experience with either powerplants or airframes, or 30 months of practical experience working on both at the same time. An alternative to this experience requirement is graduating from one of the approximately 170 FAA-approved aviation maintenance technician schools. (You can search for schools at http://av-info.faa.gov/MaintenanceSchool.asp). If you take the university route for this training, you’ll have the added benefit of a two or four-year degree in your back pocket. After the experience and/or schooling come three tests: a written, oral, and practical test.

Although this article is focused more on A&Ps, there is another category of certificate that is available to perform aircraft maintenance — the repairmen certificate. The requirements are somewhat similar to an A&P, but a repairmen certificate is both location and company specific; it carries a literal address where the individual is authorized to work. Repairmen must also be employed for a specific job requiring special qualifications by an FAA-certified Repair Station, commercial operator, or air carrier. For more information, including the requirements for both light-sport and experimental repairmen certificates, reference subpart E of 14 CFR part 65 (http://go.usa.gov/x3NjH).

Now, back to those personal preferences that can help to shape and mold your maintenance career.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Particularly in general aviation, people tend to think of their local FBO mechanic when they think of aviation maintenance, and for a good reason: quite a few mechanics get their start this way. The smaller county or regional facilities might come equipped with a “hangar out back” that is run by one or two certificated mechanics, with at least one holding an inspection authorization (IA) endorsement.

These settings can be more intimate with a mechanic becoming accustomed to a host of “usuals” who regularly leave their aircraft in the mechanic’s capable hands. The benefit to working in this kind of environment is that you can “be your own boss.” Controlling your own hours, intake, and output, appeals to many. Also, the more experience you have on a single type aircraft, the better you are likely to get at understanding its quirks and sorting out its issues. You can quickly become the expert.

Adrian Eichhorn, a pilot and A&P who works out of Manassas Regional Airport (KHEF) can attest to this idea. “One thing that was suggested to me early on, and which I recommend doing, is to be a specialist on one type of aircraft.” Eichhorn has done just that in the last 20 years by building a reputation as an expert on Bonanzas. “There’s a big shortage of specialists out there,” continues Eichhorn. “You can have a great career in aviation maintenance if you find a niche and focus on that.” While this can be a lucrative option for some, Eichhorn points out that this approach also has to be earned with the requisite amount of experience and understanding of a particular aircraft’s systems.

The disadvantages to being involved with this type of small or independent operation include the fact that the life of a lone A&P can ebb and flow with the flying season. That means you have to be prepared for those less busy days to ensure that the income, and the opportunities for learning, stay relatively high.

If you’re willing to sacrifice some independence to work in a faster-paced environment, you could try your hand at working at a flight school or at one of the many larger corporate/general aviation FBOs. These shops typically deal with larger fleets and can offer you experience working on a wider array of aircraft types and components. A larger operation can in many cases allow for greater job stability and more advancement opportunities (e.g., lead mechanic, lead inspector, shop supervisor, director of maintenance).

Getting Ahead

Speaking of career advancement, one important way an A&P can “climb the ladder” in his or her field is by obtaining an IA endorsement. To be considered for an IA, an A&P mechanic must have held his or her certificate for at least three years, and been active for the last two years. An IA candidate must also have:

  • A fixed base of operation where he or she can be located in person or by phone
  • The available equipment, facilities, and inspection data necessary to properly inspect the airframe, powerplants, propeller, or any related part or appliance he or she will be approving for return to service.

Finally, applicants must pass an IA knowledge test — more on that can be found here: http://go.usa.gov/x3Nvm. To submit an application, use FAA Form 8610-1, Mechanic’s Application for Inspection Authorization. An IA information guide is also available at http://go.usa.gov/x3NfV.

Another evolving area for aircraft mechanics to consider focusing on is avionics. Although avionics technicians only represent a small part of the overall aviation maintenance workforce, their skills are becoming more and more in demand in an increasingly digital world. The FAA mandate to install Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out equipment by 2020 will continue to fuel that demand, along with an increasing desire for more sophisticated autopilot, communication, and cockpit weather display systems. An Airframe rating allows a mechanic to repair and maintain some avionics equipment, but other licenses and certifications may be needed.

Airline Aspirations

Much like pilots are often attracted to working with “heavy metal” in the air carrier world, many aircraft mechanics have similar aspirations. Depending on the airline and/or the position, you may be able to gain employment with little or no experience beyond your A&P. In addition to earning a degree in the aeronautical field, some aviation maintenance university programs offer internships to help you get practical experience and can assist with job placement after graduation.

Once hired, airline mechanics usually either work in line maintenance at the airline terminals, or perform larger scale inspections and repairs at an overhaul base. After gaining additional experience, a mechanic can move up to become a lead technician, supervisor, or a shift, hangar, or station manager.

According to 17-year United Airlines aircraft technician Miguel A. Chungata, “the sky’s the limit with career opportunities.” To be successful in the airline business, though, he adds that “you really have to have a love for maintenance and not be afraid to get your hands dirty.” In addition to those hard-to-clean fingernails, you’ll likely encounter noisy work environments, high-pressure situations, and the need to sacrifice nights and weekends until you build seniority. “It’s not a 9-5 job, that’s for sure,” says Chungata. “But if you’ve got a passion for aviation, nothing beats the satisfaction of swapping out an entire widebody engine in order to keep the operation running smoothly.”

aircraft maintenance

A Little Help from Your Friends

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), aircraft mechanics and avionics technicians held about 137,300 jobs in 2014. Although BLS forecasts indicate minimal job growth in this field through 2024, mechanics who specialize in more cutting-edge technology and composites, and who are knowledgeable about computers, are predicted to have an edge in the market going forward.

Another way to gain an advantage career-wise is to get involved with mechanic-minded groups or professional associations, like the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA) or the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA). These groups regularly host educational seminars which can always double as a networking event. You can also read publications like Aviation Maintenance Magazine (www.avm-mag.com) or reference the many maintenance-related materials and resources on the FAA’s website (www.faa.gov/mechanics). For links to the AMT Awards Program, as well as dozens of AMT training courses, check out the FAA Safety Team’s website (www.FAASafety.gov).

So whether you’re doing annuals on a single-engine Cessna, or heavy checks on an Airbus A380, being an aircraft mechanic can be an extremely demanding, but immensely rewarding career. By being thorough and taking pride in your work, you can ensure it is a successful one as well.

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.

Sabrina Woods is currently a human factors scientist with the FAAs air traffic organization. She spent 12 years as an aircraft maintenance officer and an aviation mishap investigator in the Air Force.