Industry favors overhauling mechanic training

Aviation International News » July 2006
September 15, 2006, 9:00 AM

The maintenance industry must do something to address the growing demand for maintenance that will result from increased levels of flying. That was one of the main messages at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s second Future of Aviation Maintenance Science Summit. Also on the agenda was how to change mechanic training to meet the needs of a fleet of technologically ever more sophisticated aircraft.

“I think we ought to look beyond the regulations,” said Fred Mirgle, director of the school’s aviation maintenance technology department. Any conclusions about what mechanics of the future need can’t rely on regulatory action because that takes too long. Changing the rules that required training in wood, dope and fabric repairs, for example, from Level 3 (hands-on practice) to Level 1 (classroom study) took seven years, Mirgle noted. The industry, which presumably knows what it needs in a mechanic, should drive any effort to upgrade mechanic capabilities, and it shouldn’t rely on the FAA or on changes in regulations.

The maintenance industry has been down this self-examining path before.
In March 1999, a meeting held at Embry-Riddle launched an industry group called Make It Fly to promote careers in maintenance. Funded by contributions from aviation firms and a $25,000 donation from AOPA, Make It Fly got off to a strong start but soon sputtered due to lack of continued funding and strong leadership.

Make It Fly’s focus was on the so-called mechanic shortage, which has never been studied in a rigorous fashion. Some question whether or not there is truly a shortage of aircraft mechanics, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that good mechanics are getting harder to find and that many mechanics have left the aviation field after bad career experiences, especially in the airline industry.

Industry associations and schools were well represented, and industry attendees included people from airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest, maintenance companies Midcoast Aviation and Bombardier Business Aviation Services and helicopter operator CJ Systems.

At the May summit, the term “mechanic shortage” was rare, and participants discussed the broader view of how mechanics should be educated to meet the needs of the industry. However, Midcoast president Kurt Sutterer conceded that business is growing so quickly that the company plans to hire 100 mechanics per year for the next few years. “More airplanes mean more jobs,” he said, “and each flight hour creates four to five hours of maintenance.”

The Changing Face of the Mechanic

Mirgle acknowledged that one problem that always comes up when maintenance
people get together is the public’s perception of aircraft mechanics as unskilled grease monkeys with little education and undeserving of respect. However, he suggested tackling that problem later and focusing on the more immediate opportunities facing the maintenance industry.

Embry-Riddle director of special projects Peter Morton brought up the anticipated growth of the lower end of the business jet fleet, very light jets. “This is an inflection point in the world of aviation,” he said. If VLJs and the air-taxi companies that plan to take advantage of these jets’ flexibility grow as quickly as projected, their maintenance is going to be a huge challenge, he added. New technology such as electronic flight bags and in-flight monitoring and real-time datalinked predictive maintenance will require mechanics to have an entirely new set of skills. “This is a whole new world,” he said.

“The technology is coming,” agreed William Tramper, L-3 Communications field service engineer. “What role is the mechanic going to have? Can an A&P graduate troubleshoot and maintain all these systems?” Tramper sees two distinct maintenance skill sets, the first composed of mechanics who perform mechanically oriented tasks on airframes and engines and a new breed–perhaps called “aviation electronics technicians”–that takes care of the electronics. “All of these systems are going to be overwhelming for the mechanic,” he said.

Bob Manelski, director of airplane health management at Boeing Commercial Aviation Services, highlighted what mechanics can expect on the 787, including pilots in flight e-mailing faults to maintenance bases. “There will be no documents with the 787,” he said, “just a database. You can’t pick up and hold a big fuzzy book.” Instead of requiring regular revisions to electronic maintenance documents, the database will be kept up to date.

Boeing’s goal in applying technology to maintenance is to reduce non-routines–
unexpected maintenance problems–to zero, Manelski said. With the 787’s integrated modular avionics and fiber-optic data buses, graduates from maintenance schools are going to face a huge knowledge deficit. “Someone has to bridge that gap,” he said.

Eli Cotti, director of technical operations for NBAA, sees a need for an aircraft mechanic of the future, a “super-technician.” This kind of mechanic would begin with A&P certification, then gain avionics and electronics expertise and education equivalent to college-level engineering technology students’. The post-A&P education would be provided by various entities including universities such as Embry-Riddle that have A&P programs and degree programs and electronics-focused training provided by industry-developed programs.

The super-technician concept won’t work, Cotti warned, unless regulatory authorities recognize the additional training and allow super-technicians to sign off logbooks to return aircraft to service.

NBAA is working to develop this concept and is planning to host a meeting at October’s NBAA Convention, at which Jim Ballough, the FAA’s director of flight standards and the force behind the summit, has been invited to speak. “After 103 years of technical advances in aviation,” said Cotti, “it’s time to be aggressive about advancements of the aviation maintenance career.”

“We’re so far behind in this business,” admitted Embry-Riddle’s Mirgle. “We’re really talking about a highly educated professional technician.”

Post A&P Training

One effort that might help bring future mechanics up to speed is the National Center for Aircraft Technician Training (www.ncatt.org), an industry-led consortium focused on creating training programs and certification for post-A&P school technicians. NCATT’s first effort is a navigation and communications radio certificate program. Next will be a bench-technician certificate, and the opportunities for post-A&P training and certification are unlimited.

“There is a void in the industry,” said Floyd Curtis, division chair of Tarrant County College and one of the NCATT founders. NCATT’s vision, he added, “is establishing and maintaining industry-identified and -endorsed technician training and skill standards.”

Embry-Riddle is also a strong supporter of NCATT. “This is a good example of how things can be done by industry,” said Mirgle. “At some point Part 147 [A&P schools] are going to be under this umbrella,” he predicted.

The consensus at the May summit was that the A&P certificate should be considered a baseline, to be supplemented by industry-led training and certification programs such as NCATT. If the FAA and other regulatory authorities agree with this plan and support post-A&P certification programs, this could help make aviation maintenance careers more attractive and remunerative.

Keeping the Momentum

ERAU’s Fred Mirgle identified a number of issues to be considered to make progress on changing mechanic training to meet new demands. These included:

• Is the A&P (FAA airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate) still a viable format for the 21st century?

• What subjects in the typical A&P program need to be eliminated or reduced?

• What subjects need to be added?

• How do avionics and electronics fit in to the A&P program?

• How do repair stations, which aren’t required to employ A&Ps, fit in?

• What skills does the aviation industry want mechanics to have? (Communications skills, computer literacy, leadership skills, OSHA and EPA training and so on?)

• Where should these meetings go next?

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