Avionics Technology: Things I Have Learned

While recently undertaking an archeological dig in my own home we unearthed a box containing among other things, certificates of training for the numerous courses and seminars I have attended over the years. This discovery prompted me to start thinking about what I had really learned.

There are the obvious self-taught lessons like cleaning grime off an electrical outlet using a wet steel wool pad without first turning off the electrical power (please do not try this on your own). There are also the lessons learned while troubleshooting a complex problem. The manufacturer’s technical support group inevitably advises you to first replace the most expensive component and this advice becomes more prevalent once the warranty has expired.

Contemplating the training programs I have attended also got me thinking about all the truly great educators I have encountered along with the standardized folks, their canned lesson plans and ideas that an airplane is an airplane. This concept reminded me of the fast food restaurant mentality; some of these courses, like their culinary counterparts, provide little nutritional value.

The premise of being trained in my profession is not necessarily a consoling thought. Training, by definition, is “the act of becoming proficient at a task through instruction and repetition.” I do believe there still exists a need for this kind of activity in preparing aircraft technicians of today but perhaps a better idea would be to impart knowledge for the purpose of promoting thought. After all, even with the most sophisticated diagnostic tools, it is still the human mind that must assimilate all pertinent data and decide what action is relevant. Activating the onboard diagnostic system is one example of a task that requires training to become proficient at its use while education will provide the knowledge necessary to understand the relevance of the diagnostic report.

What does the FAA say?
So just what does the Federal Aviation Administration say about training to maintain proficiency as an avionics technician? Well if I worked for an air carrier or a repair station, my employer would have the obligation to develop and conduct a program that would be acceptable to the Administrator. As I am employed (on my day job) by a business aviation Part 91 operator, the FAA leaves us to our own devices regarding the training accomplished.

A need for the soft skills
One revelation is that aircraft technicians have a need for soft skills such as communications, risk management, teamwork, and human factors.

Those kinds of skills are not required by the regulations or even to become an A&P mechanic but they are essential to becoming more effective in any career.

Coursework in these skills can build respect, professionalism, confidence, and increased safety. This is good for the individual as well as the employer. Many of these programs can be achieved through participation in FAASTeam events. If not available through the workplace, try a community college or university. As a professional, it just isn’t possible to have too much education and the payoff may surface in unexpected ways.

In recent years I have become very selective of the programs I attend. My quest is for the tribal knowledge that only comes from real-life experiences relayed by well-versed professionals. Another objective is to find a program where the other attendees are skilled and willing to share their perspectives.

The first lesson I have learned is that there is no higher priority than personal safety and those of us involved in the repair and maintenance of aircraft systems are without doubt in a high risk profession. One prudent step is to become acquainted with the various cautions and warnings published in maintenance and support documents.

Caution typically implies injury or damage while warning means possibility of death.

Hazards abound in our industry, in fact it is common when I encounter an old friend and say hello from a ways off, the most frequent response is “what did you say?” Who would ever think that aircraft mechanics could be hard of hearing? Most of the tasks we undertake involve an element of risk, be it radiation while troubleshooting a radar system or electrical shock from a stray wire or even static discharge from an improperly bonded panel.

Many of the chemicals we come in contact with on a daily basis contain warnings that would cause most logical people to question why they were ever produced, yet with proper knowledge and protection they are used with the desired effects. Situational awareness is a key element to survival in our trade and in an uncoordinated shop co-workers often contribute to personal injury.

Wiring/electrical anomalies
Electrical Wiring Interconnection Systems (EWIS) is a relatively new concept and was proclaimed in Advisory Circular 25.1701-1 published at the end of 2007. This was the start of enlightening technicians about the anomalies that may arise when wiring for various systems is collocated in bundles and wires are found in various shapes and sizes for a variety of reasons and one size does not fit all applications. Who would ever think that locating a video cable next to an antenna coax could result in degraded radio communication? Along that same line, there may be a reason why the installer that fitted the communication radio coax left that extra cable coiled up and secured. With certain systems the transmission of radio frequencies (RF) is enhanced when the transmission line (coax cable) is cut at a specific dimension to coincide with the wavelength of the RF used. A second bit of insight with coax cables is that they can be sensitive to clamping techniques. An overtightened clamp or wire tie can compress the coax altering the impedance which contributes to signal loss.

Experience is another excellent teacher when it comes to the use of sealers in and around electrical connectors. Some products do contain materials that are conductive even though they do not appear to create a short to ground it may impact the performance of digital buses or other impedance critical circuits.

Just because it worked that way before . . .
A few other noteworthy revelations include: just because it works that way in one aircraft does not always mean that if another aircraft does not perform in a similar fashion that a problem exists; assuming any polarized capacitor you encounter is fully charged; the shielding on a wire is always intact; the electrical connection or switch is good because the ohm meter displayed low resistance; discourage the suggestion of a coworker that you go check for power at various points while they look at the wiring diagram and advise you; and when an engineer uses the term “impossible” consider that your judgment is probably on the right track. Probably my most perceptive conclusion is that “Murphy” must have been an aircraft mechanic.

While perusing the box full of old training certificates, I undertook the mission of totaling the hours that I spent in a learning environment in the last 30+ years and came up with the fact that I have accumulated the equivalent of 11 years worth of course hours. The last lesson I learned is when my Dianne reads this she will figure she was bamboozled regarding my participation in this year’s house cleaning and I will have to come up with another idea for next year to get out of the annual household purging of junk.

Jim Sparks has been in aviation for 30 years and is a licensed A&P. His career began in general aviation as a mechanic, electrician, and avionics technician. In addition to extensive hands on, Jim created and delivered educational programs for several training organizations and served as a technical representative for a manufacturer of business jets. Currently when not writing for AMT, he is the manager of aviation maintenance for a private company with a fleet including light single engine aircraft, helicopters, and several types of business jets.