There are over 140,000 aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians in the United States. Nearly all have been certified at a Federal Aviation Administration–approved school. Job growth over the next ten years is expected to be at the low end of the average range, about 7 percent. Competition will be strong for positions with major airlines. Opportunities offered in general aviation, at regional airlines, and FAA repair stations will be numerous.
Preventive maintenance is extremely important for airplanes, since they fly in hot and cold extremes, driving winds, and other damaging conditions. Some aircraft technicians do only preventive maintenance, focusing on functionality of engines, instruments, brakes, pumps, landing gear, and other essential components. Careful records must be kept concerning maintenance and repairs to confirm that aircraft have received proper care after a certain number of flight hours or calendar days.
Many large planes contain monitoring systems that record diagnostic information. When working on engines, aircraft, and avionics equipment, mechanics and service technicians must use finely calibrated instruments that precisely measure parts to determine wear patterns. X-rays are used to locate cracks invisible to the eye. In addition to maintaining and repairing aircraft engines, gauges, and other mechanical parts, technicians might also examine sheet metal surfaces, control cables, fuselages, wings, and tails of aircraft.
While some mechanics specialize on a specific type of aircraft, others work on a number of very different machines like jets, helicopters, and small propeller airplanes. Airframe mechanics work on all components of an aircraft with the exception of propellers, instruments, and power plants. Power plant mechanics focus exclusively on aircraft engines’ basic propeller repairs. A&P mechanics have been certified to work on both airframe and power plant components.
Navigation, radio communications, weather radar, and instruments that control flight, engine, and other essential components are maintained and repaired by avionics technicians. It is also part of their work to investigate complex electronic malfunctions and determine how they can be repaired.
Aircraft mechanics work in a number of different settings. Hangars, repair stations, or airfields are common work environments. They must complete repairs quickly and efficiently to keep the plane as close to schedule as possible; at the same time, however, safety standards cannot be shortchanged, for the sake of the many lives on board. In addition to the stress of working under time pressure, mechanics will have frequent need to lift, carry, or pull heavy objects. They must be flexible enough to assume awkward positions to access certain parts of the aircraft. There may be times when they are required to work from a tall ladder or scaffold. Because of the extreme noise, mechanics should wear ear protection. Most mechanics work five eight-hour morning, evening, or night shifts. They frequently are asked to work weekends and overtime.
To become FAA certified, mechanics must have a high school diploma or GED, be fluent English speakers, be over the age of seventeen, and have sufficient technical skills. There are over 170 Aviation Maintenance Technician Schools in the country that have been certified by the FAA. These schools must offer at least nineteen hundred class hours of training. Programs are typically one to two years. Roughly sixty FAA certified schools also offer four-year degrees. In addition to covering turbine engines and aviation electronics, coursework might include physics, chemistry, computer science, math, and mechanical drawing.
Before receiving certification in airframe or power plant work, at least eighteen months of work experience must be documented. An A&P certificate requires a minimum of thirty months of experience with both engines and airframes. Alternatively, some FAA-approved schools offer courses that can replace these requirements. Written, oral, and practical tests must be successfully passed within two years of receiving certification.
Certification also requires ongoing work experience totaling a minimum of one thousand work hours over a two-year period. Alternatively, mechanics can complete a refresher course. In addition to the work hours, an additional sixteen hours of continuing education training is required in the same time frame. Anyone that trained in avionics repair while in the military or that has previous work experience with avionics manufacturers might be exempted from some requirements.
With experience, mechanics and technicians may be offered a position as a crew chief, inspector, or shop supervisor. Technicians who have also earned an aircraft inspector’s authorization by maintaining a valid A&P certificate for three years or more and have at least two full years of hands-on experience will be exceptionally well qualified. Promotion to an executive position is also possible.
The median pay for aircraft mechanics and service technicians is a little over $25 per hour. Those at the bottom of the pay range earn around $16 per hour, while those at the top can earn as much as $35 per hour. Major airlines pay jet mechanics at a higher rate than those who service simpler aircraft. About 30 percent of all aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians are union members. Most of them are with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers or the Transport Workers Union of America. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters also represents some of these workers.