Next Tech for NextGen

The year 2000 prompted a phenomenon known as the “Millennium bug,” otherwise known as the Y2K problem. This was one of the better known challenges related to the digital age. Those of us involved in aviation maintenance support activities and representing Generation “X” had a pretty good handle on the technology of the day, along with some good ideas of keeping up with the gradual yet predictable advancements. After the purple haze of the 1970s began to dissipate, the “Digital Age” and Generation “Y” got a solid grip on daily life in aviation with novel ideas such as central maintenance computers and on-board diagnostics. So just what do the Millennials have to look forward to? Will they be borne into the roles of Next Techs for NextGen?

NextGen is the concept being deployed to modernize the Air Traffic Control system and involves use of satellite technology and digital signals to improve navigation, communications and surveillance. Advisory Circular 20-138D was recently revised and includes good reference information on many of the subsystems included in the NextGen program.

So, is the aviation community ready for the challenges the future holds? Advisory Circular 65-30A, which is titled “Overview of the Aviation Maintenance Profession” was authored in late 2001 and although pertinent for the day, it now appears to be very much out of tune with life at least in my world.

Having spent the majority of my career involved in business aviation, a big part of my current daily chores involve supporting the “modern office in the sky” and as any businessperson will relate, being productive requires being connected and that is essential in this day and age. Many executives when traversing the world don’t always recognize the challenges involved in connecting a man-made machine traveling at perhaps 80 percent of the speed of sound and did I mention while being six to eight miles above the planet. The ability to surf the net reliably from this environment is in and of itself a minor miracle. In the business aviation world airworthy is a must but an equal priority: is the aircraft “fit for function”? That is, not only is it safe for flight but can it accomplish the business functions it was outfitted to perform?

 

Education equals success

I recently had an opportunity to attend the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) Conference and was delighted to hear our Part 147 schools are excited about all the opportunities to improve on the initial indoctrination of new technicians to our profession. One dilemma, the FAA has not as yet amended the FAR 147 to revamp the curriculum; airframe and powerplant courses today are not much different from what they were almost 50 years ago.

The “need to know” for technicians supporting current, as well as future aircraft, has changed and education is paramount for success. This is not only true for those just entering the profession but those of us with a high level of proficiency in the typical Generation X and Y era aircraft that are now going through renovation programs to become NextGen compliant.

Technology in new aircraft types is not limited to avionics. Advanced composites, construction techniques, insulating materials, and even inspection methods have evolved. In fact several industry organizations including the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA), Helicopter Association International (HAI), and the National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA) are all following similar courses in promoting more advanced and continuing education to better qualify our work force with new methods, concepts, and equipment.

In years past, task based training was a mainstay in qualifying technicians to “return to service” and although still an important component in aviation maintenance, in the digital age education becomes more imperative. Yes, there is a difference in “training” and “education.” Training is to make competent at a task through instruction and repetition while education is intended to provide knowledge for the purpose of promoting thought.

Continuing education is a necessity in our business and if not provided by an employer it becomes the responsibility of the technician to make sure they are capable and qualified for challenges at hand as airworthiness should never be compromised. Numerous resources do exist to help spread the new knowledge. The National Center for Aerospace & Transportation Technologies (NCATT) has recently been affiliated with ASTM (formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials) which is a recognized global leader in the development and delivery of international standards (www.ncatt.org). In conjunction with members of industry including the National Business Aircraft Association, an aircraft electronics technician (AET) endorsement has been created. This is a foundation on which to build a solid career and enhance pertinent knowledge. In addition to the basic AET credential, additional modules have been produced to certify technician knowledge in areas such as communications and navigation. Many employers look at the AET as a benchmark in the determination of best candidates to hire.

The NCATT curriculum is available on-line along with self-study materials. Testing can be accomplished for a reasonable fee at various Lasergrade FAA testing centers. In addition, several commercial training providers offer intensive courses where the test is administered following the course.

 

Wiring systems

Electrical wiring interconnect system (EWIS) is a recently founded program where aircraft wiring is treated as a stand-alone system mandating installation, inspection, and even training requirements to ensure continued airworthiness. Much of this was prompted by incidents and accidents in the 1980s where aircraft wiring was considered install and forget until a problem exists. Now it is a mandatory part of Transport Category aircraft and is well documented in FAR 25.1701 and well explained in various FAA job aids, Advisory Circulars 25.1701-1, AC 25-10, 25-16, 25.27A, and even AC43.13-1b. Much of this ties directly to NextGen through the use of the digital data transmission.

It is common for modern aircraft to network numerous system computers to provide a thorough integration for enhanced automation. Many still treat the data bus as if it was just another “run of wire.” Unfortunately, depending on the type bus, length of wire can impact data transfer. Clamping of data cables is another concern as an action as simple as over tightening a wire tie can impact the impedance of the bus and disrupt the information flow. Ethernet cable does not currently have generic and readily available installation or inspection criteria that is considered acceptable or approved by airworthiness authorities but again proper clamping forces are imperative along with ensuring maximum bend radius is not exceeded.

 

Network managers and IT gurus

Many in our field realize the value of being connected and have the ability to get on-line anywhere from home or office to the local coffee shop through wireless networks. Wi-fi utilizes local wireless technology enabling electronic devices to exchange data using 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz radio waves. This has also been adapted to aircraft and can enable Internet access from the cabin. Even the flight deck can be an approved Hot-Spot in conjunction with recent FAA acceptance, assuming the connection is directly related to the flight. It may becoming apparent that technicians charged with supporting NextGen business aircraft, like it or not, will have to be network managers and IT gurus.

Next Tech for NextGen is an initiative with growing momentum to implement change. The target areas include core curriculum in the Part 147 schools, continued education for actively engaged technicians, regulatory changes to FAR Part 65 granting additional privileges to qualified technicians, and even revising Part 91 to redefine inspection programs.

Currently the focus is promoting FAA action but the big picture will be worldwide acceptance with a global understanding of what is truly required to not only ensure continued airworthiness but to ensure the aircraft is fit for function.

 

Jim Sparks has been in aviation for 30 years and is a licensed A&P. His career began in general aviation as a mechanic, electrician, and avionics technician. Currently when not writing for AMT, he is the manager of aviation maintenance for a private company with a fleet including light single engine aircraft, helicopters, and several types of business jets. Currently he is the chairman of NBAA’s Maintenance Committee. You can reach him at sparks-jim@sbcglobal.net.

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