The Letter

As I write this article the good news is that the Democratic primary fight is over. The bad news is now the Republicans and Democrats are going to fight a verbal and media war 24/7 for the next four months on who is best suited to run the country. And they say water-boarding is torture.

Bad news is not restricted just to the field of politics. Ever since 9/11, aviation has had its share of problems. In June, Continental Airlines announced it is laying off 3,000 employees. Delta and Northwest airlines are in the process of merging into one giant airline. But they say they are not going to lay anyone off. Call me a cynic, but that one will be a first.

Because of the high price of fuel all airlines are cutting back on routes and number of flights so you have to buy your tickets way early and hope there is not a weather or maintenance delay. With the profit margins so thin, the airlines are trying to get every nickel from you just to stay in the black. You now have to pay for your bags to arrive at the same time you do. Even the complimentary bag of peanuts has gone the way of the dodo. One figures, that it is only a matter of time until seat belts and flotation devices will cost extra.

Being exposed to all the negative media about aviation for so long, it is no wonder that the number of Part 147 trained A&P mechanics certificated by the FAA declined from 7,162 in 2002 to 4,678 in 2006. So the bad news from where we stand is we are not attracting young people into our profession and with all the front page news bad mouthing aviation you cannot blame them for looking at other careers.

After reading all the bad press few high school seniors are going to enter a career field which has all the appearances of coming apart at the seams like a wet paper bag. Plus, being an aviation mechanic is not as sexy as being a pilot complete with a toothy grin, big watch, and wearing the four stripes of power.

Industry still needs mechanics
The really crazy part of this equation is the industry still need mechanics! While the airlines have never really solved the problems brought on by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and continue to downsize or merge and the employment picture does not look so good; large Part 145 repair stations and aerospace manufacturers are booming and they need mechanics. This need is not just a blip on their radar screen. They are well aware that the majority of their workforce is made up of baby boomers and in less than five years most will hit retirement age. So they will have to hire mechanics at a steady rate for the next five to 10 years to handle growth and loss of employees to retirement.

I am proud of my profession and I think it is one of the greatest careers for anyone who likes the technical challenge of flight and is not afraid to get his hands dirty. But we mechanics have to look at the problem realistically. While we are good technically at our craft, we are lousy at promoting it.

Recruit one-on-one
Since the majority of A&P schools actively recruit high school seniors starting as early as September of each year, I think it is appropriate that these are the people that we should first get in touch with.

Please be aware of my intentions. No way am I saying that I am better at recruiting than Part 147 schools. What I hope to do is show other mechanics by example that we all should recruit new mechanics one-on-one to enter into our profession, be it by word of mouth, email, letter, or an invitation to see a hangar with work in progress.

Since I am a little long in the tooth, I must admit that I am not familiar with iPod, YouTube, Innertube, BlackBerry, strawberry, text messaging, or other wireless forms of communications used by today’s high school students. So for my example today I will stick with a straightforward letter that requires only a stamp to get it where it has to go and doesn’t need a battery to make it work.

Dear High School Senior:
By way of introduction my name is Bill O’Brien. I am proud to say that I am an aviation maintenance professional and have been an aircraft mechanic since 1964. Yes, I know, by your standards, that makes me so old that they want to carbon date me. But one thing about being very old is I have no reason to lie to you, because I have fewer number of heart beats in front of me than behind me and I see no need to push my luck.

Consider this: If you have not made up your mind yet if you are going on to college or the military when you graduate. And if you are good with your hands and like to solve mechanical problems then I would like you to consider aviation maintenance as your career field. If you want to hear the truth about the aviation maintenance profession, please read on.

Mechanic certificate: What you are looking for to work on aircraft is to earn your FAA mechanic certificate. The mechanic certificate has two ratings: Airframe and Powerplant. This is where the term A&P mechanic comes from.

Flexibility: Aviation is a relatively new form of transportation. It has been in existence less than 105 years since the first flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers. In that time aviation has become the premier form of transportation. Here in the United States we have more than 220,000 active aircraft. You can pick the aircraft you want to work on from the two-place dope and fabric aircraft used to pull gliders, to 350 passenger seats jumbo jets, or med evac helicopters. Since aviation maintenance is a worldwide career, you can live and work anywhere. In this career you will never be bored and you can chase your dreams.

Training: I recommend that you get trained at an FAA-approved Part 147 aircraft technician school. This is where you will be taught 43 different aviation subject areas from sheet metal to turbine engines, electrical to propellers within a 15- to 22-month timeframe depending on the school you attend. The courses are demanding. They have to be because you will be tested nine times by the FAA: three orals, three practicals, and three written tests.

Picking the school: Some Part 147 schools are state supported, others are privately owned. Tuitions vary from $5,000 to $33,000 for an A&P course. Find out what the school teaches in addition to the FAA requirements. Advance electrical training and avionics courses are an added plus. If a school has a great reputation it is a sure bet that aerospace companies will send recruiters there. So it is not unusual that you would have a job in your pocket before you graduate. Before you decide on one school it would be a good idea to see if you can talk to any of the school’s graduates and ask them if they got their money’s worth and if the training prepared them for the real world.

Pay: Starting pay for a brand new right out of the box A&P mechanic is about $35,000 a year. From there, depending on any additional training you receive it is not uncommon to be making $60,000 plus in less than five years with overtime.

Cycles: For better or worse aviation is joined at the hip to the world’s economies. In my 45-year career, half the time the aviation industry has been flying high and I had more overtime than there are hours in a week, 30 percent of the time you worked a normal work-week and about 20 percent of the rest of the time the hangar was as empty as a shaven armpit. One really has to prepare for these downturns by getting additional training in technical areas or taking college courses if you decide to go into management. Being qualified in many areas keeps the lay-off notices away. Bear in mind that other technical/maintenance professions such as automotive, home construction, and factory work also suffer from these same cyclical economic conditions. This is what happens in a free-market economy.

People: One of the most important discoveries that I made as a mechanic was the high level of professionalism and dedication to safety of the people I worked with. These are a special breed of men and women who with skill and practice make sick airplanes well again. You will make a lot of good friends. Since aviation is a very small world, no matter where you travel, you will see old friends and acquaintances in some of the most unlikely places.

Sexy: Sorry, aviation maintenance is never sexy. It is demanding. The only time it is exciting is when something goes wrong, then it gets very exciting. Keep in mind that every airplane that you work on has to be airworthy, 100 percent of the time because people’s lives depend on it.

In closing, I must apologize for not writing a more glowing description of the aviation maintenance profession worthy of a politician’s promise. But I promised you the truth. We mechanics by nature are not very sensitive folks so we find it hard to really describe what aviation means to us, the work we do, and what it is all about.

Perhaps the best way to describe what it is like to be a mechanic is a description of our profession taken from an FAA poster celebrating the 100th anniversary of flight.

“The sun glinting off the wings of an aircraft high in the sky is a tribute to the pilot’s skills who took it there.

“The white line behind the aircraft is the autograph of the mechanic whose technical skills keep it there.”

That’s what aircraft mechanics do. We keep it there! Wishing you the best in whatever career you choose.

Best regards,
Bill O’Brien
A&P 1809539 IA