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Thursday, February 1, 2007

General Aviation: The Future AMT Conference

Jim Clark

A group of industry luminaries met in Virginia Beach, Va. recently to discuss the future of the mechanics and technicians in aviation.

A group of aircraft industry representatives, maintenance educators and representatives from the FAA met in Virginia Beach, Va. from November 29 through December 1, 2006 to discuss the future of the aircraft maintenance technician profession. At the conference, which was hosted by the Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM), the participants discussed some quick fixes that the FAA might be able to implement administratively, as well as more fundamental changes that would have to be accomplished through a rule-making, which would take years.

The FAA might be able to address some issues through interpretations or through case-by-case exceptions. These issues include the role of long distance education using the Internet, whether all FAA tests must be taken at the same time or whether they can be taken one at a time as the student completes each unit, and what is meant by the 1,900 hour requirement.

The conference also agreed that ARAC or an ad-hoc group including representatives from AMT schools, aerospace industry employers, aviation professional organizations and the FAA should be formed to propose changes to 14 CFR Part 147. The changes discussed included:

1. Creating an up-to-date living document with curriculum requirements that can be readily modified to keep abreast of changing technology and changing needs of the workplace;

2. Reducing the educational subject matter requirements for an AMT degree to an abbreviated list of core competencies, allowing schools to add specialty technical areas; and

3. Removing the 1,900 hour training requirement from the regulation and making AMT learning programs outcome based (also known as competency based).

The conference also discussed Operation Bootstrap, a proposal to create additional technical certifications for Aircraft Maintenance Technical Engineers (mechanics with avionics training) and for a calculus-based aircraft maintenance engineering degree.

Finally, the group discussed how the industry can recruit more young people into the aircraft maintenance field.

Current Requirements

Currently, FAA-certified AMT schools must offer a curriculum that addresses each of the subject areas required by 14 CFR Part 147, Appendices B, C and D. Each subject area must be taught to the level defined in 14 CFR Part 147, Appendix A. The rule mandates the number of teaching hours devoted to each group of subject areas (general, airframe and power plant). These hours are: General — 400, Airframe — 750, and Power plant - 750 for a total of 1,900 hours for a combined airframe and power plant curriculum. In addition to fulfilling the 1,900-hour requirement, students must pass an FAA test to be certified.

The 14 CFR Part 147 schools are regulated by the FAA, which requires that each school graduate a certain percentage of students who enroll.

Some of the requirements in 14 Part 147 seem outdated. For instance, students question the relevance of learning how to repair wood and fabric while little or no attention is given to modern composite materials. Similarly, employers want their entry-level technicians to understand electronic systems more than radial engines and unducted fans.

A literal interpretation of the 1,900-hour requirement forces rapid learners, who have completed their curriculum ahead of schedule, to sit around in class and do nothing until they have put in their 1,900 hours. Requiring students to sit in class a certain amount of time to achieve a degree is different than the competency based concept of credit hours used in colleges. Employers would like to have these rapid learners on the job rather than having them spending unproductive time treading water in school. On the other hand, less accomplished students find themselves rushed through topics that they don’t fully understand so that companies must give graduates additional training.

The Shortage?

Most conference participants believed that there is a shortage of maintenance students. Schools are all operating at less than capacity and some are closing every year. Fewer promising students are entering AMT schools for a number of reasons. First, U.S. high schools are graduating relatively few students with a solid math and science background who are interested in technical work. Second, wages for mechanics are relatively low and careers are not regarded as glamorous. Third, becoming a certificated A & P is expensive and time-consuming, requiring 1,900 hours of class time. The expense includes having to pay to take the FAA test.

Of those students who enter schools to obtain an A&P, only a fraction actually take aircraft maintenance jobs. Graduation rates for students are relatively low. Many students who complete the training take jobs for more money in other fields, according to participants.

Even though there may be a relatively small number of AMTs working in the field, Brian Finnegan, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, contended that there is no shortage of AMTs because wages have remained flat and a shortage would cause their wages to rise. According to Finnegan, employers have filled the need for aircraft maintenance workers by hiring lower-paid, uncertified employees who are supposed to be under the supervision of AMTs. The ratio of certified to uncertified aircraft maintenance employees has been declining, according to Finnegan. Finnegan warned that unless the FAA does something to regulate this ratio of certified to uncertified technicians, safety could suffer.

Problems Solving

Changing the 14 Part 147 systems through a rule making would take years. Jim Ballough, FAA director of flight standards, discussed three issues that might be addressed more quickly, through administrative action: whether students can receive credit for distance learning over the Internet; whether FAA tests must all be taken at once or can be taken one at a time, when students complete their studies of the applicable subjects; and what is meant by the 1,900- hour requirement. Ballough plans to consult with FAA lawyers to determine whether these issues could be resolved through interpretations, without a rule making.

According to Laverne Phillips, national director of AIM, the FAA has allowed a school to give credit for distance learning through the Internet at least once, in Alaska. The FAA might allow other schools to follow suit on a case-by-case basis or issue an interpretation setting out criteria for allowing distance learning.

Similarly, some schools have been allowed to take the FAA test serially, as students complete the applicable subjects. The FAA might authorize such phased testing on a case-by-case basis or through an interpretation.

It was unclear whether the FAA could or would take some administrative steps to soften the literal 1900-hour requirement to move it closer to a competency based system. Such a change may take a rule making.

Proposed Part 147 Changes

At the conference, the Future of AMT Education Committee proposed that ARAC or an ad hoc group of AMT educators and the industry work with the FAA to develop a new 40 CFR Part 17, stating:

The two main areas of concern continue to be the verbiage contained in 14 CFR Part 147 dealing with mandated subject matter and hourly training requirements. These regulations inhibit AMT schools from best serving their two major clients, students and industry. By adhering to detailed subject matter directives and standardized time restrictions, the existing regulation forces schools to produce homogeneously skilled technicians graduating at a low level of proficiency. Furthermore, the regulation, as it currently exists, cannot maintain pace with advancing technologies and changes in employment needs.

To address these problems, the AIM Education Committee recommended that the proposed Committee develop three fundamental changes to 14 CFR Part 147: 1) creating a living document with a curriculum that is easy to modify as technology and workplace needs change; 2) reducing the required curriculum to designated core competencies and leaving whether to develop additional specialty areas to the schools; and 3) replacing hourly training requirements with outcome-based standards. (Alternatively, some conference participants suggested that the number of required hours be reduced from 1,900 to something closer to 1,400).

The Future of AMT Education Committee’s members are James Mader (Chair), Floyd Curtis, Ed Frye, Mark Geisler, Jack Graham, John Graham III, Charles Horning, Laurie Johns, Elena Klasing, Michael Klasing, Ivan Livi, Ian McCloskey, Fred Mirgle, LaVern Phillips, Nick Sergi, Donald Stark, Thomas Stose, Raymond Thompson, Michael Wisniewski and Thomas Yanus.

The committee cited the requirement that students learn wood and fabric repairs and learn how to repair radial engines and unducted fans as examples of curriculum that may be obsolete. On the other hand, the committee suggested adding some avionics training.

The committee observed that how much students know is what matters, not how long they have sat in class, noting that the 1,900-hour requirement penalizes students who are rapid learners.

Certifying Competencies

Brad Townsend, vice chair of the NBAA maintenance committee made a presentation entitled "Operation Bootstrap" for creating additional career paths for aircraft maintenance professionals. Their plan would create industry certifications for aircraft maintenance technical engineers, or AMTEs, which would include a combination of A&P and avionics capabilities, and aircraft maintenance engineers, or AMEs, a calculus-based engineering degree.

Operation Bootstrap is the proposal of the training and advanced education subcommittee of the NBAA maintenance committee. In addition to Townsend, subcommittee members include Gene Claus, Tim Steinhauser, Rick Ochs, David Heydt, David Cantrell and Ron Vinson. The proposed designation as AMTE would combine the skills of the AMT and the avionics technician, creating a new, higher level of aviation maintenance professional. As David Romer has said, "An updated skill set that incorporates an elevated dose of electronics is essential for working on most operational aircraft."

Townsend proposes that the National Center for Aircraft Technician Training be the primary industrial certification/accreditation agent. NCATT has already certified 120 aircraft engineering technicians. NCATT would write expanded curriculum for the AMTE and accredit educational institutions. Once the industry and NCATT establish the certification program, the FAA might require these certifications.

Townsend described Project Bootstrap as the "first vertical career growth in the aircraft maintenance industry in 50 years." He believes that the additional career path would add value to the aviation business and increase safety. He also predicted that the career growth potential would attract more young people into the industry and help the industry retain experienced technicians.

Operation Bootstrap was unveiled at a meeting at the annual convention on October 15, 2006. The initial meeting was attended by AEA, AMS, AMT, NCATT, NBAA, PAMA, and former NTSB board member John Goglia. Townsend anticipates having another meeting within three months to be attended by representatives from the academic/training/educational community as well as the industry.

Attracting Technicians

Attracting students into engineering and technical fields that require math and science proficiency is a nationwide problem. Sam Cox of Purdue University discussed efforts to work with schools, colleges and universities to prepare students to be successful in post-secondary science, engineering and technical careers. According to Cox, as the baby boomers retire during the next five to fifteen years, the nation will need 15 million engineers and technology workers to replace them. To meet that demand, schools should strengthen their core academic curricula in math and science.

Because of the image of airline maintenance as a low wage, low glamour industry, the need for young technicians may be particularly acute. Participants suggested introducing aeronautics curriculum in elementary schools. They suggested hands-on activities, such as testing rocket engines, collecting data on launch software and modeling rocket trajectory.

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