A tough economic climate coupled with the expectation for thousands of senior maintenance technicians to retire in the next few years is putting incredible pressure on the aerospace industry. The pace of business shows no signs of slowing, forcing many airlines to improve profitability as well as productivity. Aircraft maintainers play an increasingly critical role in helping airlines meet this goal by keeping aircraft safe, up-to-date, and in-service.
With this skill shortage looming, in-school and on-the-job training programs will need to be able to keep up with the demand to ensure new staff can walk into the big shoes they are expected to fill. Using interactive 3-dimensional (3-D) representations of equipment is one way to provide students with the ability to practice critical tasks such as the disassembly and assembly of aircraft engines, learn key maintenance procedures, and review the mechanics of engine parts in operation.
These equipment simulations, which can be displayed on a common desktop or laptop computer, are changing aircraft technician training programs. In North America both commercial and military aircraft maintenance programs are seeing an improvement in student knowledge and first-time-right performance.
The changing pace of learning
In our industry, it used to be that maintenance technicians learned most skills on the job logging endless hours working under the tutelage of more senior staff to gain practical hands-on experience. In an age where many had grown up working on a farm or under the hood of their dad’s car, the progression from changing the spark plugs in the driveway to checking the magneto ignition system of an aircraft seemed natural.
In the new millennia, this is not always the case for the students entering the workforce. Not only are aircraft considerably more complex than ever before, many apprentice technicians have grown up in urban areas and are more comfortable with a computer than with a wrench. For these students, who are often not familiar with common tools and the mechanical relationships between engine parts and subsystems, access to equipment is incredibly important. Unfortunately, budget constraints and increasing class sizes cannot provide round-the-clock access for students to examine and take apart engine models and often 20 or more students will crowd around an engine while an instructor points out the key parts and their functions. But, as the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) discovered, the fact that these students are more computer-savvy than mechanically inclined, proved to be an area of opportunity.
See engines in a new way
In BCIT’s engineering school, the Pratt & Whitney PT6A engine is core to its teaching. The PT6A turboprop engine is one of the most commonly used engines in the aerospace industry as it is known to be dependable and easy to operate. With 6,500 operators around the world using the PT6A engines and more than 36,000 engines produced, maintenance technicians can expect to encounter the engine in the field. At BCIT, the school has a limited number of PT6A engines for students to examine and practice key procedures on. But before hands-on practice can begin, students must have an intimate understanding of the engine parts and subsystems.
Instructors teaching the Aircraft Gas Turbine Technicians certificate and Aircraft Maintenance Engineer diploma courses at BCIT expect students to build a mental library of images of the PT6A engine. This library is the platform of knowledge that maintenance technicians need to be able to safely and efficiently strip and maintain an engine and put it back together again. One of the common challenges instructors at BCIT faced was to help students build this arsenal of knowledge. Courseware was often limited to 2-D line diagrams, videos, and photos explaining procedural steps. Access to the physical engine was limited and unavailable to students after classroom hours, limiting their ability to practice and improve their skills.
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