A College Education: Not Just For Pilots

by Doug Nelms

There will always be a need for a good, experienced A&P mechanic on the shop floor flanked by a large tool box on wheels and – in today’s world – a cart with a laptop computer taking the place of stacks of aircraft maintenance manuals.

But now MROs, aviation operators and major OEMs are looking as much at a mechanic’s educational credentials as at his or her experience levels. With the new incursion of more complex, digital technology into aircraft maintenance, “mechanics are now managing systems as much as maintaining those systems,” said Kenneth Witcher, Dean at the College of Aeronautics, Embry-Riddle Worldwide. “That has increased the desire in the industry to want some type of formal education.”

Witcher underlined the fact that over the past 30 years the aircraft industry has changed from analogue to digital. “If you think about today’s high bypass engine, such as a Trent 9000, that engine is part of the system that is interactive with all the components within the aircraft. All the skill sets we had years ago that involved turning wrenches and reading dials has been taken over by electronics, by technology that is managing the systems and integrating those systems into a larger system.

“So now your average maintainer doesn’t just have to know how to go out and take off a fuel control and put a new control on. The likelihood is that the maintainer now has to go out and understand how this system within the engine fits into the larger aircraft system. You don’t just need somebody who can identify what tools are in his toolbox. You need someone who can see the entire system and understand how the systems integrates into, and manages, those systems.”

Also impacting this growing need for a college degree is the number of multi-million dollar – or multi-billion dollar – aerospace programs. Military contractors such as Lockheed-Martin and Northrop-Grumman are demanding mechanics with college degrees simply because of the price for their products.

“The government necessitates (these companies) to require so much higher education before they can recruit anyone,” said Embry-Riddle’s Mark Kanitz, Assistant Professor College of Aeronautics Program Chair for the Master of Aviation Maintenance (MAM) degree program. “They can’t have people walking around with just a high school diploma when they are demanding top dollar.”
This is becoming more apparent as aerospace corporations start to see maintainers more in the light of problem solvers rather than just basic mechanics.

R. Eric Jones, Department Chair, Aviation and Transportation Studies at Lewis University in Illinois, said they have found “that a lot of the new aerospace companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origins or Virgin Galactic are not really pursuing engineers to the same degree as they are pursuing pragmatic, critical thinking practitioners.”

He noted that traditionally engineers and aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) act independently of each other. An AMT would take a digital photo of some ramp damage to the aircraft’s structure, then send it to the engineer for evaluation.  They would then conference call and collectively evaluate the extent of the safest and most effective repair.  Then the AMT would perform the repair.

“So we’re now seeing more companies saying they want the best of both worlds, and are willing to pay for it.”