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Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Editor's Notebook

Many schools are relying on aged equipment for teaching tomorrow's mechanics.

We received unprecedented amounts of feedback from the October editorial, which discussed how U.S. aircraft mechanic schools might better serve their customers.

Educational experts chided me for ignoring the reality at A&P schools: they must comply with outdated FAA regulations while trying to prepare students with skills that will serve them in widely varying jobs in all segments of aviation. Focusing on what the industry needs is difficult, even for schools that do consult regularly with industry employers on what their needs are and how best to train students to meet those needs.

The biggest problem for A&P schools is that the industry's support of the schools is spotty. Sure, we all hear the big news of a company donating a used Boeing 727, but the need for ongoing industry support is far greater, and the schools are hurting because their needs are not being met. Ultimately this affects the industry that the schools serve.

Every aviation maintenance educator has the same problems: lack of modern tools, materials, and aircraft (including airframes, engines, and components). Many schools are relying on aged equipment for teaching tomorrow's mechanics. Some schools have full-blown composites labs, for example, but many rely on little ovens and small bits of leftover composites materials that give students a tiny taste of the technology. Meanwhile, companies like Cirrus Design and Diamond are busy cranking out hundreds of all-composite airplanes. Raytheon, Boeing, and Airbus are cranking up the use of composites for major structures such as fuselages and wings.

Modern aircraft are increasingly electronic. The Gulfstream 550, for example, has five times as much computing power as the not-so-old GV. If a mechanic has never seen or experienced ground runs in a glass-cockpit aircraft, then he or she is going to need quite a bit of familiarization training out in the field.

Even such prosaic items as brakes are going high-tech. Carbon brakes are not new, but they are being used on more airplanes. Brake-by-wire systems are increasingly common. And the ability to plug a laptop into the airplane for diagnostic information is now standard on almost all new jets. To assume that mechanics don't need to learn any of this in school is laughably na�ve.

The FAA always lags developments in aviation, we might as well assume that from the beginning. The industry itself responds to market pressures; right now, the industry is busy trying to build businesses that can survive, and efforts to establish relationships with A&P schools are not front-burner tasks. The schools are fighting to keep attendance from declining further in the face of stiff competition from other technical--and more remunerative--career paths.

There is only one clear answer here: the A&P schools and the aviation industry need to work together better to help each other.

Working closer doesn't mean something that happens too typically: an airline decides it's no longer financially feasible to keep flying one of its aging airplanes and donates it to an A&P school. The airplane arrives with big fanfare and speechifying by local officials. Later, a team of mechanics arrives from the airline and removes the engines, avionics, and air-conditioning packs. The school is left with the shell of an airplane that isn't useful for anything beyond sheetmetal work and there is now no way to get rid of the hulk because it will never fly again. The school will be better off selling the empty hulk for scrap and using the money to buy equipment.

There are better ways that industry could work with A&P schools. Schools need to be specific but reasonable. What benefits can your school offer the donor? Task a committee with the job of developing relationships with aircraft, engine, and component manufacturers and vendors of products that your students need to learn about such as software companies, hardware manufacturers, composite suppliers, etc.

Potential donors need to develop relationships with local A&P schools. They may be a great source of personnel and you could have an influence on what they are teaching their students. Create a committee to evaluate and donate suitable material to A&P schools. Surplus parts company Airliance does an excellent job of this and donates material that otherwise would end up on the scrap heap. Minimize liability issues when donating by rendering parts unairworthy or by written agreement with the school. The needs of the schools are too great to allow liability concerns to derail a strong industry-school relationship.

As hard as it might be to find reasonable-paying work as an aircraft mechanic these days, there is going to be a shortage of personnel in the not-too-distant future. It's demographically unavoidable. By working together, the aviation industry and A&P schools can help slow down this shortage by helping bring back some excitement through training on truly modern equipment. We all have a part to play in this effort.

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