From the smallest ultra-light and sport aircraft to the big jumbos hauling hundreds of souls across the ocean, all modern aircraft increasingly integrate avionics throughout. But the avionics technician is effectively an afterthought in today’s aviation maintenance regulatory world. With no Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification standard and only the non-representative Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license to recommend it, avionics technicians command little regulatory respect.
In reality, however, the avionics technician carries a heavy burden in most maintenance operations. With non-avionics-qualified technicians taking a hands-off attitude toward “anything with a wire attached,” avionics competency is becoming the critical skill set. The importance of avionics skills and the need to have educated and experienced technicians are getting significant industry attention. Baccalaureate degree and specialized certificate programs proliferate around the country. Each institution is essentially putting together what it thinks is a well-rounded and comprehensive curriculum. Some airlines require more than 700 hours of avionics training before technicians can be qualified to perform “line maintenance,” considered by many to be the most demanding and highly compensated aircraft mechanic position. But their standards are typically company-specific.
With so many training programs being introduced, the importance of standardization is evident. Now, after coalescing for the past couple of years beneath the industry radar, a voluntary avionics technician certification standard has been developed. A core group of professional educators has been quietly designing and building this certification program as the initial effort from the National Center for Aircraft Technician Training (NCATT). NCATT is a proposed Aviation Maintenance Center of Excellence, born out of the fertile minds of visionary maintenance professionals and propelled by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the premier educational granting sources in the United States. By early autumn, these individuals’ efforts probably will yield another $3.5 million from NSF, and the program will be ready to launch. This event will have tremendous implications, not just for avionics technicians, but also for aviation maintenance professionals everywhere.
As a Center of Excellence, NCATT will eventually address other training, certification and education reform needs, as well. Initially focused on aircraft electronics, NCATT next will address evolving technologies (e.g., new composite materials, smart metals, advanced power plants and anti-terrorist technologies). Special-needs training and certifications will be identified, developed and delivered. Upon successful implementation of these programs, the center will come full circle in aircraft technician training by including “old technology” subjects not currently being taught in FAA-approved schools.
Under the leadership of Floyd Curtis, division chair, aeronautical technology, at Tarrant County College, and with six primary co-leaders from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Weatherford College, San Jose State University, and Pennsylvania College of Technology, NCATT has developed a certification program that will continually quantify the state of the art for avionics technician competency and deliver it as an industry-accepted standard for implementation. Assisting the development committee in assuring the legitimacy of the NCATT avionics certification standard and its industry acceptance are 25 industry professionals representing FAA, the U.S. military, industry associations, universities, businesses and operators.
NCATT also has a much broader industry impact, including providing an educational institution strategy for the introduction, dissemination and inclusion of a new electronics core curriculum. It also plans to offer the opportunity for participating institutions to compete with a “best in class” education standard for aircraft technician training. Students will receive nationally recognized competencies and certification for employment. Also thousands of current avionics technicians can receive certification for training previously accomplished, both in the military and in civilian training programs. The U.S. military also is on board, assuring that its avionics technicians can certify their military training prior to separation from service.
The bottom line, of course, is that business and industry will receive a better educated workforce with a curriculum that is adaptable for continued lifelong learning. As technology advances at a fast pace, NCATT will serve as a national resource to maintain and strengthen our country’s technical education base. Together, we must work to support achieving advanced standards to assure we continue to attract the best and the brightest young minds to aviation maintenance.
Brian Finnegan is president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association.