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Aviation certifications: Big payoff for learning technical job skills

Apr. 21, 2014 - 01:44PM   |  
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Sailor-turned-JetBlue technician Andre Lafabregue traded one tarmac for another.
Sailor-turned-JetBlue technician Andre Lafabregue traded one tarmac for another. (Courtesy of JetBlue)
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Former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Andre Lafabregue tried other things, but he just couldn’t scratch that itch.

Having served as an aircraft engine mechanic for four years straight out of high school, he then took a career turn and spent the early 1990s working in restaurant management. But he needed to get back on the tarmac. “The bug finally got to me,” he said. Smart move, as it turns out. Once he earned his civilian aircraft maintenance credentials, he went straight to work and now serves as a technician with JetBlue in Boston.

For those drawn to the big birds but with no interest in taking the pilot’s yoke, maintenance and related jobs offer a way to be part of aviation. Getting in isn’t necessarily hard, especially for those with related military experience.

Non-flying jobs in the world of aviation span a broad range. Maintenance is the biggest, but the field also includes mechanics, sheet metal experts, interior aircraft mechanics and a range of similar trades.

The chief credential is the airframe and powerplant certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. There are three ways to get one:

Experience. On-the-job training can earn you a certificate. For the A&P, you would need to complete 30 months of training under a qualified mechanic.

Education. Coursework at an FAA-approved school is another possible route. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the largest such schools in the country, students will take part in 1,900 hours of contact time, including classroom and hands-on experiences. It’s a highly technical curriculum, said Chuck Horning, chair of the Aviation Maintenance Science program. A typical course load might encompass such topics as electrical systems, turbine engines, reciprocating engines, propellers, sheet metal structures and aircraft systems.

Military experience. The FAA recognizes military experience as a fast track to certification, giving service members credit for time spent in certain occupational specialties. A few of the many relevant military jobs include aerospace propulsion superintendent, aircraft fuel systems journeyman, aerospace maintenance superintendent, fabrication superintendent, helicopter repairer and maintenance technician. The Joint Service Aviation Maintenance Technician Certification Council reviews credentials and helps chart the path toward certification.

More often than not, military experience in an aviation job will give candidates a boost on the way to certification, fill much of the hands-on FAA.

“A lot of folks come out of the military, and they already have most of the experience they need. Most FAA inspectors have the guidance to look at your military experience and to know what that means,” said Carol Giles, staff liaison of the maintenance committee at the National Air Transportation Association.

Veteran status helps pay the bills for training, too. At Embry-Riddle, administrators find that G.I. Bill benefits typically take care of the roughly $58,000 it costs to get A&P certification over the course of about two years. That investment can pay off in the working world, where starting salaries in the maintenance arena typically run from $50,000 to $60,000.

“There is a pretty high demand,” Horning said. “You hear in the news about the pilot shortage, but there is actually a greater shortage of technicians. Overall, there’s a very strong demand. We have a placement rate at nearly 100 percent.”

Land one of those jobs and you’ll likely engage in a range of tasks, either with a major airline or at a smaller general aviation facility. Jobs may include:

■Examining aircraft parts for defects.

■Diagnosing mechanical or electrical problems.

■Identifying repair procedures.

■Repairing wings, brakes, electrical systems and other aircraft components.

■Replacing defective parts using hand tools or power tools.

■Keeping records of maintenance and repair work.

Beyond these more general tasks, technicians and maintenance personnel may engage in a range of more specialized occupations, especially if they are working on the big jets.

“The systems on aircraft are quite sophisticated, so usually you will have to specialize very quickly, especially on an airline job,” said Stephen Goddard, CEO and president of TransPac Aviation Academy. “In the airlines, you will probably spend all your time on just one part of a hydraulic system, whereas in general aviation you are expected to know all the systems of the aircraft.”

The distinction helps many to choose their path, once they’ve got the certification in hand. The specialized, unionized environment of a big airline is a long way from the mechanical jack of all trades working at the local airfield.

Even for those who have not specialized in some aspect of aviation while in the service, these are skills that can be learned, and much of aircraft maintenance is in fact learned on the job.

Why do people do it? Lafabregue calls it “the bug,” and it’s probably an apt description.

“Aviation has this mystique to it,” he said. “There is something magical about seeing metal fly.”

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