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Opportunities Run Sky-High for Aircraft Mechanics

Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Donald Elder replaces an axle lever on the landing gear of an F/A-18C Hornet aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (U.S. Navy/MC2 Kilho Park)
(U.S. Navy/MC2 Kilho Park)

"Aviation is getting bigger, faster and more high tech," says Brian Finnegan, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association. Although major US airlines have been struggling, general aviation companies and smaller jet and aircraft manufacturers are seeking new talent to work as aircraft mechanics as the existing workforce ages.

"We see lots of opportunities - it's coming back in spades," he says. With developments such as super-sized planes and pilot-less aircrafts on the horizon, the industry is increasingly sophisticated and will need mechanics that can keep up with ever-changing technology.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 154,000 aircraft mechanics currently work in the United States, and the BLS splits the occupation into four categories:

  • Powerplant mechanics, who work on engines as well some work on propellers.
  • Airframe mechanics, who work on every part of the aircraft except instruments, powerplants (engines) and propellers.
  • Combination airframe-and-powerplant mechanics, who work on all parts except instruments.
  • Avionics technicians, who repair and maintain components for aircraft navigation and radio communications, weather radar systems and instruments, and computers that control flight, engine and other functions.
Get to Know Your Stuff

Look for well-established schools that require at least 1,900 hours of class time and have a placement record of 70 percent or higher, says Don Newton, director of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA). Newton recommends pursuing schools with higher-than-average hourly requirements. "You want to go above and beyond the basics," he says. "See what kind of hands-on training they offer."

These schools offer students master classroom basics, such as understanding electrical laws and reading blueprints, and perform hands-on lab work. "A good school will include newer technologies in addition to FAA requirements," Newton says.

Tuition for these programs at aeronautic schools averages $20,000, and financial aid may be available.

A high-school diploma or equivalent is required for enrolling in aeronautic school, but previous experience is not essential. "I've seen some kids with no mechanical experience who came out doing really well," says Bryan Tobias, a Federal Aviation Administration-designated mechanics examiner.

Test for Certification

"If you want to be an aircraft mechanic, you can't just walk in off the street," says Tobias. So once you've completed schooling, you should test for a certificate. While testing is not necessarily a job requirement, employers prefer it. "The holder of a mechanic certificate is relatively unrestricted as to working on a particular type of aircraft or to specialized maintenance functions," he says. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires 18 months worth of work experience for an airframe, powerplant or avionics repairer's certificate and 30 months for a combined airframe/powerplant certificate.

Completion of a program at an FAA-certified mechanic school can substitute for work experience. Attending one of the 200 US mechanic schools is the most common way of breaking into the industry; however, military veterans who demonstrate good work backgrounds can test for certification, as can those with adequate practical experience but no training.

Testing involves a series of computer-based exams, followed by a day spent with a certified examiner. Then the applicant works on a series of hands-on projects covering 44 subjects that range from small commuter planes to Boeing-size jets.

Work All Over the World

Once you're licensed, where you work depends on your interests. "You have the large airlines, commuter airlines, engine manufacturers or fixed base operators¿in any part of the country and the world," says Newton. You could work line maintenance at airports, where you attend to a plane at the gate, or you could work on helicopters, as part of a team on large planes or in a shop where you repair a small plane yourself. "Right now, I've been seeing smaller carriers picking up new people for $14 to $15 an hour," Tobias says.

Wherever you go, don't expect to work 9-to-5. "The work is often outside and at night," says Finnegan. "Mechanics are athletes who climb ladders and work in small spaces. You have to be in shape."

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