By Bill de Decker
Many years ago, I was trying to interest a chief of maintenance (with far more gray hair than I had at the time) and his maintenance techs in coming to a recurrent training course with my then employer (FlightSafety). Not only was he not very interested in training, his reason really rocked me back on my heels - "There is no law that says I have to and in any case, we work on these aircraft every day . . ."
It's true, in this country, once you have your A&P ticket, there are no regulations that require initial or recurrent training. Some other countries have these regulations, but not the United States. (Whether the United States should or should not have such regulations is another subject - one I'm not going to get into!) And it's also true that maintenance technicians work on aircraft every day. In fact, you can go one step further, as another maintenance chief did some time later, and point out that it's hard to prove the savings inherent in maintenance training.
That put the challenge to come up with reasons why flight operations should spend money on maintenance training squarely on my shoulders. Let's look at some of the basics.
There are only two ways to become proficient at performing a complex task - trial and error or training.
Trial and error
Through trial and error, you do the job, make mistakes, waste time figuring out how to do it right, get some help, do the job again, spend more time figuring out a better way to do it, try to read the manual, etc. It's called "learn by doing" and it's one way to gain the required experience. And if you get to do the job often enough, or have a good mentor, you will become proficient at that job. The big problem is that most aircraft are much too reliable for this approach. A typical aircraft has perhaps half a dozen unscheduled maintenance actions that happen reasonably frequently (maybe it's proximity switches, or outflow valves or whatever). The rest of the stuff on the aircraft just doesn't break that often. As a result, when one of these infrequent maintenance problems occurs, there is no experience to draw on and, unless you've had training, it's right back to the "trial and error" method. This wastes a lot of time and can be very expensive.
Wasting time will primarily affect aircraft availability. Consider how much time is often consumed trying to figure out what the real problem is, what tools are required, how to take it apart and put it back together, what to do when the report comes back "fault not duplicated," etc. The airlines figure that each revenue hour lost costs about $7,500 to $10,000 for a 130-seat jet. A charter operator with a Gulfstream IV will lose about $4,000 for each lost revenue hour. And for a corporate operator who cannot use the aircraft for a CEO because the aircraft is down for unscheduled maintenance, who knows the cost to the company.
The actual cost of parts used in the repair can also be significant. Consider an actual example. An electrical system warning light came on in flight. The cause appeared to be a faulty voltage regulator. Replacement of the regulator solved the problem - till the next day. Put in another regulator (while muttering something about the poor quality of these d----d things). And when it fails again, further, time-consuming research reveals that the real problem was a stuck relay. I don't know the cost of the two unneeded voltage regulators these days (they were about $1,200 each when this actually happened many years ago), but like anything else on an aircraft, they are never cheap. So, instead of one expensive part, it took three expensive parts!
The advent of digital avionics and the use of computer boards in the design of modern aircraft systems aggravate the problem even further. After all, digital avionics and computer boards don't grind, squeak, crack, or operate at half speed to give a clue about how or why they failed, they simply stop working. And they don't lend themselves to the old "swap and test" approach to troubleshooting either - that's a good way to burn out a bunch of very expensive components. To help the maintenance tech, the manufacturers of this equipment are becoming heavily involved in on-board, computerized troubleshooting systems and what are called "health usage and monitoring systems (HUMS)". Some of these systems are truly great, but you have to know how to operate and interpret them. And in fact, with many of them it is almost impossible to gain the experience by trial and error.
The training approach
The other way to get the experience needed to accomplish most maintenance tasks cost effectively is through training. Consider how a professional training course is constructed. It starts with a listing of the knowledge and practical experience that must be taught (the course objectives). Then the course designer, with the aid of an appropriate maintenance expert, will figure out the best way to present the problem and he or she then designs the lesson plan and the visual aids to achieve these objectives. Next the instructor will take this material, review it, and practice it until it is an effective course. In other words, modern training courses are specifically designed to give the required experience for proficiency in the shortest amount of time possible and with the least amount of wasted time.
How often should you get training? At least once a year, you and each of the technicians in your group should take a professional training course. Perhaps one year it can be type-specific recurrent training. The next year it might be troubleshooting training. Another year could be composite repair (if your aircraft involve a lot of composites). Other courses include engine maintenance training, avionics training, and the like. The key is to get into a regular schedule of maintenance training, just like the pilots do. Sure, it's not required and yes, these courses aren't cheap. But when you consider what you get and the potential savings to your organization through better aircraft availability and less wasted parts, the cost of not getting training is far higher than what you'll spend on training in the long run.
Bill de Decker is a partner with Conklin & de Decker Associates, publishers of aircraft operating cost databases. He has over 35 years experience in fixed and rotary wing design, marketing, training, operation, and management.