The Letter

Career advice to high school seniors


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.

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