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Wings Of Faith
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CHAPTER l 

How To Become
An Aircraft Mechanic

         What is it that leads people to become involved in aviation?  In my case it was Hollywood.  I was the kid who watched Sky King religiously.  About the same time there was another television show about a man and his Bell 47 helicopter and I couldn't get enough of either of them.  Hollywood has always portrayed aviators as dashing charismatic personalities and social misfits and to some extent it is true, but that is where the similarities end.  You will almost never see a movie about aircraft mechanics.  I think that the reason for this is that there is very little excitement in watching an aircraft mechanic change the tire or brake of a DC-9 in the pouring rain, or troubleshooting an aircraft electrical system.  There isn't much glamour in this business.  The glamour belongs to the pilots.  But there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction to be had in realizing that you have performed an excellent degree of maintenance on an airplane and you can stand on the ramp as it taxi's for take of knowing that you have done your part to make your airline fly safely and make money for your company. 

         For me, just knowing that I had a part to play in keeping the aircraft operating safely, even if it was a small part, filled me with satisfaction.  Most mechanics don't start into this field expecting to feel this way about their work.  Many times I have come across mechanics who will tell me that they get no satisfaction from their work as I do.  I usually get some kind of grumbling remark after I have expressed how I feel about my job.  I don't know what to say to these people.  Sometimes I wonder why they became mechanics in the first place.  If you don't get a thrill out of taxiing a large jetliner or even standing next to one you must be dead.  Some people don't even consider the work that they do a career.  This one completely baffles me.  Granted, no one wants to do what they are doing now forever but I personally can think of nothing else I would rather do right now. 

         Another factor that lures people to aviation is a love of aircraft.  I think that many times people are lured into aviation through their exposure to movies and television.  But if they take what they see on the screen at face value they will become very disappointed if love for aircraft has not been inspired also. 

         Being an aircraft mechanic has some pretty unpleasant duties.  There aren't many people who will stick their hands into an aircraft toilet to fix it and overlook the unpleasantness of having to do so because they love aircraft.  Which reminds me of a mechanic I knew a mechanic named Rocky who had a horrible experience with an aircraft toilet.  A woman riding one of our aircraft had a miscarriage in the restroom onboard the airplane.  The woman had to be carried away unconscious in an ambulance and none knew exactly what happened until the lavatories were serviced in Miami when the ground crew discovered that the discharge hose had become clogged.  When this happened further investigation revealed that the child had fallen into the aircraft holding tank and its' body had clogged the discharge outlet.  Rocky had the unpleasant job of removing the tank from the airplane so that the child could be delivered to the coroner.  When the mechanics on the floor found out that they had to extract a dead baby from the holding tank no one except Rocky would take the job. 

         Another factor that leads people into aircraft maintenance is the pay and benefits.  I think that people who enter the field for this reason are probably the most disappointed, because the pay for a starting mechanic is ridiculously low and it is even worse for pilots starting out at a commuter airline.  Regarding mechanics the airlines recognize only one thing, experience.  What have you worked on before?  And if it isn't the kind of aircraft they are flying, you either won’t get hired or you will start at entry-level pay.  Airlines are always looking for experienced mechanics because they know that they can basically hire the guy and turn him loose on the airplane with no familiarization period required.  The pay has also decreased quite a bit since the days of regulation.  I think this is the result of an increased competitive market, creating a situation where the airlines make less money because they have to keep their fares as low as the competition.  An airline has three areas of expenses that hit them the hardest, the largest one is the cost of fuel, the second largest is the cost of spare parts and the third largest is the payroll.  An airline has very little control over the cost of fuel and spare parts, but they have a tremendous control over the payroll.  Now add to this the fact that most deregulated airlines operate on a 1.5% profit margin and you can easily understand what has happened.  To balance a shrinking budget they have cut costs using the only expenditure they had in their control.  This is why airline pay has dropped an average of 40% since deregulation. Almost all investors will tell you that investing money in the airlines is about as risky as the commodities market.  This is no doubt due to the fact that most airlines are always 1.5% away from bankruptcy even on a good day. 

         Even with this in consideration I have always felt good about buying stock in the company I work for.  Maybe there is a little bit of American Indian in me, but I felt that it was important to give back a little of what I made from my airline.  It made me feel as if I had more of a vested interest in my job. 

         There are several ways a person can get into this line of work.  You can obtain a license by working as a mechanics helper or apprentice for 18 months, go to school for it or learn it in the military.  If you go the apprentice route you will still have to take the written, practical and oral examinations and in addition to this you will have to obtain an endorsement from a designated maintenance examiner certifying that you have worked in the field for 18 months and that he finds that you are knowledgeable enough to take the written examination.  This is really going about it the hard way.  First it will be next to impossible for you to find any airline that will let you work for them without at least one license, either airframe or powerplant.  Second getting the necessary endorsements will be a formidable task in itself.  This is generally a method that is seldom employed.  It may have been popular in the barnstorming era but is completely impractical today. 

         There are three types of aircraft mechanic schools.  The first type is the one-year cram course method.  This type of school is most suited to the kind of person who has very few commitments in life and is willing to sacrifice his personal life for a time, so that he may study.  You should be the type of person who not only reads fast, but also picks up on details both in books and your environment fast.  If you're the kind of person who never needs to be told how something works twice and your math skills are above average then this school is for you.  You will study hard and have your license in one year. 

         Then there is what I call the one and a half to two year sane approach, which allows a person to have some somewhat of a personal life and doesn't shove the material down your throat.  This method is also a lot easier on the student by providing ample time to learn what is required.  Junior colleges and some four-year colleges offer either type of program.  There are also institutions that solely teach this course such as Spartan Aviation. 

         The last alternative to schooling is airline ab-initio training.  The term ab-initio means that the training is more similar to O.J.T.  Basically how this type of training works is that an airline approves you for their training program and requires you to sign a contract with them committing yourself to employment with that airline for a period of time after you have become a graduate. 

         If you have the airlines for your employment destination, then this type of training is the way to go.  It is my understanding that United Airlines and American Airlines are starting programs of this kind.  This type of training is best for becoming an airline mechanic because it provides hands on experience with the methods of operation and equipment that an airline mechanic uses every day.  It provides exposure to things that no college could ever provide.  For example, how many colleges are there that own a Boeing 737 and a large ramp for tugging or push back practice.  Yet with airline ab-initio training you can get that kind of experience.  When the classroom portion of the training is over, you can go out with your class to a real jetliner that is" actually used in the business, to get some hands on exposure.  This is the kind of training that no college can provide.  However when these schools open up waiting lists that stretch to infinity will quickly develop, so it is important to contact all the major airlines in writing to determine if programs like these are available and how soon you can attend.  This type of training provides the airlines with more experienced junior mechanics and a consistently qualified work force, which has been a problem for the airlines for a long time. 

         In any case, what type of training you choose should be personally investigated in great detail.  There are a few fly by night operations out there that will rip you off if you give them half a chance.  Ask to talk with one of their graduates who are working for an airline or at some other facility and meet him with a list of questions about his training and how the school helped him in his career.  A school's reputation among the community is not good enough.  Find out what type of equipment the school has available to train with.  Do they tear down and rebuild turbine engines? Do they have running equipment to work with? Is their training centered around piston or turbine power? All of these things are some basic questions you should be asking before you lay down one dollar of tuition.  There are in actuality a tremendous amount of other questions that should be answered before you commit yourself, but there is not enough time to cover them all here.  Use your common sense and read up on the various aviation magazines like Aviation Week and Space Technology, Aviation International News and A.O.P.A.  Pilot and Flying magazine are just a few of them out there.  Hopefully you have been reading these for quite awhile.  Also the Future Aviation Professionals of America or F.A.P.A.  for short has a tremendous amount of material and assistance to provide the inexperienced.  All of these sources can be addressed by using the appendix in the back of this book. 

         I also can't recommend strongly enough to get your F.C.C.  General Radio Telephone Operators License after you get your A&P license.  The reason for this is that the knowledge you will gain from the basic electricity portion of the A&P program will put you about a third of the way through the F.C.C.  General Radio Telephone Operators course.  As we all know jet airliners are becoming increasingly dependant on Avionics.  So much so that Southwest Airlines prefers to hire people with both licenses over people with the A&P only.  By taking the F.C.C.  course immediately after the A&P you will already know about a third of what you need to and be warmed up and ready for the rest of it.  Having the F.C.C.  license also improves your employment security in general. 

         For the person in military aviation, you are halfway there already.  Many years ago an aircraft mechanic would leave the military with only half a license.  In other words he would be a sheetmetalist or a powerplant mechanic because the military made these distinctions and would not permit cross training or the shifting of work responsibilities.  Now in this era of the modern streamlined military with its reduced personnel there is a great deal of cross training and shifting of work responsibilities. Years ago when you left the service you would have to go to school to get the other half of your license.  Now this is no longer so.  You will still receive one license corresponding to the position you had in the service but due to the cross training you received and the additional responsibilities you had it will be an easy task to pass the written, oral and practical exams to get the other half of your license.  In many cases the military is providing the education required to do this through a local junior college.  Keep this in mind if you are deciding to enlist into the armed services to get aviation maintenance experience.  If you go this way you will have all of those years of hands on experience with aircraft that are much more sophisticated than most of what is in use today by the airlines.  As I said earlier experience speaks louder than words in this business.

 

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