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Summer 2007 Vol. 51, Number 2

Sky-high careers:
Jobs related to airlines

Tamara Dillon


Mechanics and service technicians

Aviation maintenance departments comprise several different specialists, including airframe mechanics, powerplant technicians, instrument repairmen, and avionics technicians. As a team, these workers keep aircraft operating safely and efficiently.

Duties. Many mechanics specialize in preventive maintenance. They inspect aircraft engines, landing gear, instruments, pressurized sections, brakes, valves, pumps, air-conditioning systems, and other parts of the aircraft. They fix or replace any broken or worn parts that they find. When working on large, sophisticated planes, mechanics download diagnostic information from electronic boxes and consoles that monitor the aircraft’s basic operations.

Mechanics and technicians conduct inspections, following a schedule that is based on the number of hours the aircraft has flown, calendar days since the last inspection, cycles of operation, or a combination of these factors.

Just like all mechanics, aircraft mechanics use wrenches, welding torches, digital calibration and diagnostic equipment, and other tools. But because planes are big, the work of an aircraft mechanic poses unique challenges. Mechanics examine engines through specially designed openings while standing on ladders or scaffolds or by using hoists or lifts to remove the entire engine from the craft.

Sometimes, mechanics need to take an engine apart. They use precision instruments to measure each part for wear and use x-ray and magnetic inspection equipment to check for tiny cracks. Mechanics also may repair sheet metal, measure the tension of control cables, and check for corrosion, distortion, and cracks in the plane’s fuselage, wings, and tail.

Other mechanics find and fix problems that pilots describe, rather than finding and fixing hidden problems. For example, during a preflight check, a pilot may discover that the aircraft’s fuel gauge does not work. To solve the problem, mechanics might troubleshoot the electrical system, using electrical test equipment to make sure that no wires have broken or short-circuited, and replace defective electrical or electronic components. For minor repairs, these mechanics might work on the runway while passengers wait for the plane to be repaired and cleared for takeoff.

Some mechanics work on just one type of aircraft, such as jets, propeller-driven airplanes, or helicopters. Others specialize in one aircraft section, such as the engine, hydraulics, or electrical system. Each system requires different skills and certifications. Airframe mechanics are authorized to work on any part of the aircraft except the instruments, powerplants, and propellers. Powerplant mechanics are authorized to work on engines and do limited work on propellers. Combination airframe-and-powerplant mechanics—called A&P mechanics—work on all parts of the plane except the instruments.

Avionics technicians repair navigation and radio communications equipment, weather radar systems, and other onboard instruments and computers. These technicians make complex electrical repairs.

Like most repair workers, aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and repairers enjoy the challenge of examining and disassembling engines and other equipment to look for problems, then repairing and reassembling them. Whatever type of plane they service, most aircraft mechanics work in large hangars close to airports. But if the hangar is full or the plane is on the runway, that means working outdoors at all times of the year—whether it’s summer in Tucson, Arizona, or winter in Fargo, North Dakota.

Airline mechanics may need to disassemble an engine to test its parts for wear and tear.

Employment and earnings. Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians held about 133,570 jobs in May 2006, according to BLS.

Median hourly wages of airline mechanics and service technicians were $22.95 in May 2006, according to BLS. For avionics technicians, BLS shows median hourly wages in May 2006 of $22.57.

Qualifications and training. Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service repairers must have good manual dexterity and problem-solving skills. And they should be able to work well under time constraints, sometimes tight ones.

Aircraft mechanics must have a high school diploma or equivalent. Most have attended 1 of about 170 trade schools or community colleges certified by the FAA. Many of these schools offer associate or bachelor’s degrees in avionics, aviation technology, or aviation maintenance management. People seeking to become avionics or instrument technicians usually need at least an associate degree in electronics. Some mechanics learn on the job after high school, but this method of training is becoming less common.

In addition, aircraft mechanics almost always need certification from the FAA, unless they are working as apprentices or helpers under the supervision of a certified mechanic. To be eligible for basic certification, a mechanic must be a U.S. citizen able to read, write, and speak English and must complete a program at an FAA-certified mechanics school or have 18 months of work experience under the supervision of a certified mechanic. These mechanics must also pass oral, written, and practical exams. To keep their certificates current, mechanics need at least 16 hours of training every 24 months. This training is often offered on the job by employers.

The FAA offers basic certification in either airframe or powerplant mechanics. It also offers the combined A&P certificate that allows for certification in both. Today, most employers prefer that their mechanics have this combination. To qualify, mechanics must acquire at least 30 months of experience working with both airframes and engines, or have less experience and the completion of an FAA-certified mechanic school program. A&P certified mechanics also must pass written and oral tests and demonstrate that they can do the work authorized by the certificate. To stay certified, they need current work experience: specifically, at least 1,000 hours of relevant experience in the previous 24 months. Alternatively, they can take a refresher course.

Avionics technicians also need an FAA mechanic’s certificate. Many gain avionics repair experience in the military or from working for avionics manufacturers. Additional voluntary certifications are available from professional associations. Avionics technicians who fix radios or radar must have a license from the Federal Communications Commission.

Some mechanics begin with a more limited repairman certificate. Repairman certificates are valid for only one place of employment and for only one or two specific job tasks, such as working on propellers or on instruments. Mechanics who have repairman certificates usually work for engine shops or airplane manufacturers rather than airlines.

In addition to considering education and certification, airlines value experience working on military aircraft. But most people with military experience still need additional training to meet FAA rules regarding civilian work.


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Last Updated: February 15, 2007