Yesterday’s A&P skills are barely adequate for today’s evolving maintenance needs and they certainly won’t be in the future. In the past, mechanics were just that, mechanics; tomorrow’s mechanics will need to be much more tech savvy than was even imaginable a few short decades ago. Back then, aviation mechanics would troubleshoot mechanical systems, repair and replace components as necessary; they inspected and replaced wear items such as tires and brakes. And, they serviced accumulators and replenished engine oil and hydraulic fluid. Critical tasks of course and the curriculums at Part 147 schools were up to delivering mechanics trained to perform those tasks. Most of today’s mechanics were trained under those older curriculums.
Keeping up with technology
Today we’re seeing a marked increase in the electronic technology with which an A&P needs to be familiar. For example, to properly conduct diagnostic tests on avionics — basically everything that glitters in a glass cockpit — a mechanic needs to be familiar with electronic test equipment, including digital volt ohm meters, such as Fluke meters. Many of today’s mechanics were never formally trained in the use of these digital systems. The same is true for composite materials. While composites have been around for quite some time, their extensive use in aircraft is a fairly recent phenomenon. And many A&P schools did not have the time or money to invest in a complete composite training program. This leaves many mechanics learning on the fly, if you will. Not the most efficient way to learn or perform maintenance, and certainly not the safest.
The future promises many more technological improvements. Embedded sensors throughout the aircraft and in aircraft systems will be performing monitoring functions and providing digital readouts that trained mechanics will have to interpret and act on. Enhanced engine monitoring systems will allow maintenance to identify performance degradation before it’s even noticeable in the cockpit. Tomorrow’s mechanics are as likely to show up at the aircraft with a laptop as with a toolbox.
The FAA has recognized this problem and in 2007 put together an Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) which looked at Part 147 training requirements. The ARAC made its recommendations to the FAA for curriculum changes in the spring of this year. While I agreed with the recommendations made, I was frustrated that they did not go far enough in advocating changes needed to meet the changing requirements of aviation maintenance. And the recommendations are just that, recommendations. Rulemaking could take years and while we wait, the gap between the technology in the aircraft and the technological training of our mechanics will continue to grow. Clearly an unacceptable situation.
FAA study group
On a more proactive note, the FAA is looking at the knowledge, skills, and abilities that mechanics will need to maintain aircraft coming on line in the future. While this is a positive step, new aircraft continue to come on line as the FAA’s study group convenes. The 787 is scheduled to come online next year and there are other aircraft scheduled to come on line in the next few years. All these aircraft will utilize the latest in digital technology and advanced materials. I am fortunate enough to have been asked to serve on this study group.
The group includes not only FAA personnel but also human performance experts from the University of Illinois. I am very encouraged by the broad approach that the group is taking to this very important issue. The group is seeking input from manufacturers and repair stations. I would like to hear from every day mechanics to make sure that your hands-on perspective is factored in. What do you see as your advanced training needs? Email me at email@example.com.
So our task today is both to catch up and prepare for the future. Catching up and staying caught up may mean it’s time for a continuing education requirement for A&Ps, just as there is for many other professions. Rather than asking every financially strapped airline or repair station to provide the enhanced training for its workforce, mechanics should be able to buy the specialized training they need at Part 147 schools or other commercial training providers, such as factory schools. I believe that A&Ps maintaining and enhancing their qualifications will make them more valuable employees and hopefully result in higher pay. So the relatively small burden of paying for these courses themselves should result in higher earning potential in the long run.
I look forward to working with the FAA’s study group and hearing from all of you.
John Goglia has 30 years of experience in the aviation industry. He was the first NTSB board member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.