General aviation's perspective on maintenance training

General Aviation's Perspective on Maintenance Training

The Impact of Technology

By Fred Workley

November 1998

Fred Workley

A new aviation industry group has formed to look for ways to interest more people in careers as aviation maintenance professionals. Also, the rewrite of Federal Air Regulation part 65 has been published as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking under Part 66. In light of all this industry and Federal Aviation Administration activity, let's take a look back, examine the present, and look forward to the future.

A study undertaken by industry and the Federal Aviation Administration was concluded several years ago and was compiled by the Pilot and Aviation Maintenance Technician Blue Ribbon Panel. The findings were released in a document entitled, "Pilots and Aviation Maintenance Technicians for the Twenty-first Century — An Assessment of Availability and Quality."

Its conclusions were that there was no current numerical shortage of aircraft maintenance technicians, and that there would not be a numerical shortage for the next 3 to 5 years. However, the Blue Ribbon Panel predicted an impending shortage of AMTs who meet the qualifications necessary to operate in the complex aerospace system of the future. The panel also predicted a high probability that there would be another numerical shortage after 1995 and through 2010. There are now many people who think that the numerical shortage will be in full evidence by the last quarter of 1998. In General Aviation, the aircraft maintenance technicians are essential to ensuring safe and reliable aircraft. These technicians perform the day-to-day maintenance tasks to keep aircraft in airworthy condition. The aircraft range from many 1940 and '50s vintage Piper Cubs, Aeroncas, and Cessnas, to very sophisticated jets and turbo-prop aircraft with the most modern equipment similar to the newest airliners.

Aircraft maintenance technicians are employed by all of the airlines, but a large number have full time employment in the general aviation sector. General aviation offers five areas of employment:

1. On-demand air carriers called Air Taxi operators;
2. Corporate operators;
3. Business and Commercial operators;
4. Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) providing a multiple of services;
5) Repair Stations.

Neither the major air carriers nor the commuter/regional air carriers are considered General Aviation. The commuter air carrier operates aircraft with a maximum of 60 seats, and provides at least 5 scheduled round trips per week between two or more points, or carries mail. However, in the General Aviation sector, the air taxies are on-demand any time and any place. These operators fly everything from 1943 Taylor Craft on floats at Fairbanks, Alaska, to the latest business class jets.

On the other hand, corporate operators use owned or leased aircraft flown by professional flight crews and operated for use by corporate personnel. Business aviation uses an aircraft for its own business activity, and a company representative flies the aircraft. These aircraft are not for hire or compensation and support the business, like any other valued resource.

Fixed base operators provide a variety of services, including aircraft maintenance, fueling, flight instruction, aircraft for hire, and cargo service.

Repair stations often employ AMTs even though the repair station's certificates do not require the use of licensed technicians. Repair stations look for individuals with good mechanical skills and the ability to be trained in specialized processes sometimes performed during maintenance of aircraft and components for which the repair station is authorized. Within general aviation, maintenance technicians perform a wide variety of tasks.

This is because general aviation covers all civil activity except the air carriers. As noted earlier, this sector of the industry encompasses a wide variety of aircraft from single-engine, piston aircraft built prior to World War II to the latest state-of-the-art, multi-engine jet aircraft. Old aircraft are still in service and they will be around a long time with proper maintenance and corrosion control.

Most technicians in general aviation need to have many mechanical skills as opposed to being a specialist. These skills tend to be basic skills such as working with sheet metal, servicing hydraulic systems, and trouble shooting electrical malfunctions.

General aviation, at one time, was viewed as a training ground for the airlines. When the airlines were hiring in great numbers, this was true. With the onset of layoffs at many airlines, newly graduated technicians from schools, who had sound basic mechanical skills, were finding their first jobs in general aviation. Many still find life-long careers at fixed base operators or at air taxi operators. The airlines are hiring again, but so is everyone else including the general aviation sector.General aviation also offers individuals apprenticeships and work experience, so that those who have not gone to a formal Part 147 school might qualify to test for the Airframe and Powerplant license. Likewise, general aviation provides those with military training exposure to civilian aircraft and gain work experience in order to qualify to take the Federal Aviation Administration written tests.

The individuals with military experience tend to be older and more experienced than other entry-level applicants for employment; however, the military personnel tend to be specialists. Often they must expand their specialty areas and acquire a broader range of basic skills to maintain general aviation aircraft. As school populations slowly shift to include minorities, disadvantaged individuals, and women, these groups are finding ready employment in general aviation. Many small aviation businesses are finding that it is to their advantage to actively recruit and financially assist these groups. Some businesses have started promoting the AMT occupation within their local secondary schools so that they have a local pool of future employees. This often requires a long-term commitment to technician training. Later in their career, many of these general aviation technicians acquire advanced skills that enable those holding an Airframe and Powerplant license to qualify for an Inspection Authorization. Many have general radiotelephone licenses and have taken advanced technical training that may include manufacturer's schools that teach selected aircraft systems.

Many general aviation aircraft currently incorporate 40 years of design technology. General aviation is constantly updating and adding modifications to the fleet by replacing engines, instrumentation, systems, and navigation equipment. This includes very high bypass engines and electronic instrumentation known as glass cockpits that replace the conventional dials and gages with electronic visual displays. These general aviation aircraft use computer monitoring and test systems with built-in test equipment called BITE, navigate with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and in the very near future will incorporate fly-by-wire and fly-by-light systems. One of the big needs in the general aviation sector is to have technicians who can adapt to this new technology as technological advances are accelerating.

More and more old aircraft are being retrofitted with new and advanced systems. Technicians need to master this new technology. Also, technicians who are capable of learning the latest hardware and software will be in ever increasing demand in all general aviation categories, and they will be increasing the value of their skill. This alone generates an on-going demand for training.

Automation in testing and the use of new materials for repairs are two specific areas of training needs. This includes not only the challenge of glass cockpits, but also automation in once common repair processes. It takes a complicated machine to make repairs to composite materials. Instead of using rivets in sheet metal patches, we now use boron lay-up patches that require a high level of installer proficiency since they must be placed correctly the first time with controlled temperatures and pressures. Aircraft maintenance technicians, who have long dedicated careers in general aviation, are now finding that they are required to bridge the technology gap from the simple, unsophisticated equipment that they have known all their career to some very high-tech skill on the latest systems and equipment.

The need for training in the general aviation sector is met by individual AMTs and employers through classes, on-the-job training, recurrent training, and aircraft type-specific training. More and more training applications are including computer-based instruction along with videos and audio-visual media for light aircraft. The modern technicians must be provided with training that reflects the current and future needs based on technology. Few companies are willing to take on the cost of basic training. Therefore, the technician schools must provide training that will ensure that new-hire technicians are productive in as short a time as possible. The schools will be increasingly pressured to provide immediately productive employees.

As I said earlier, the general aviation sector does a good job in developing individuals who possess the needed basic mechanical skills. To recap, I mentioned early in this discussion that there was some question as to whether or not there is an adequate supply of aircraft maintenance technicians. One of the pressing problems in the general aviation work force is getting the people to the location were the jobs exist. There is a growing sector of the industry that relies on temporary contract personnel who are skilled in the type of work to be accomplished.

Furthermore, there has been a recent realization that general aviation does offer an alternative to going off to the big city, by offering local employment with life-long opportunities at the hometown airport. The long-term challenge will be to keep general aviation aircraft maintenance technicians up to date and current while maintaining their traditional skills. Constantly learning the new technology applications to older aircraft will prolong the life of the old aircraft. Whether the aircraft are 50 years old or 5 months old — we have to 'keep em' flying.