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To keep aircraft in peak operating condition, aircraft mechanics and engine specialists perform scheduled maintenance, make repairs, and complete inspections required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Many aircraft mechanics specialize in preventive maintenance. Following a schedule that is based on the number of hours the aircraft has flown, calendar days, cycles of operation, or a combination of these factors, mechanics inspect the engines, landing gear, instruments, pressurized sections, accessoriesbrakes, valves, pumps, and air-conditioning systems, for exampleand other parts of the aircraft and do the necessary maintenance. They may examine an engine through specially designed openings while working from ladders or scaffolds, or use hoists or lifts to remove the entire engine from the craft. After taking the engine apart, mechanics may use precision instruments to measure parts for wear, and use x-ray and magnetic inspection equipment to check for invisible cracks. Worn or defective parts are repaired or replaced. They also may repair sheet-metal or composite surfaces, measure the tension of control cables, or check for corrosion, distortion, and cracks in the fuselage, wings, and tail. After completing all repairs, mechanics must test the equipment to ensure that it works properly.
Mechanics specializing in repair work rely on the pilot's description of a problem to find and fix faulty equipment. For example, during a preflight check, a pilot may discover that the aircraft's fuel gauge does not work. To solve the problem, mechanics may check the electrical connections, replace the gauge, or use electrical test equipment to make sure no wires are broken or shorted out. They work as fast as safety permits so that the aircraft can be put back into service quickly.
Mechanics may work on one or many different types of aircraft, such as jets, propeller-driven airplanes, and helicopters; or, for efficiency, they may specialize in one section of a particular type of aircraft, such as the engine, hydraulic, or electrical system. As a result of technological advances, mechanics spend an increasing amount of time repairing electronic systems such as computerized controls. They also may be required to analyze and develop solutions to complex electronic problems. In small, independent repair shops, mechanics usually inspect and repair many different types of aircraft.
Mechanics usually work in hangars or in other indoor areas, although they may work outdoorssometimes in unpleasant weatherwhen the hangars are full or when repairs must be made quickly. This occurs most often to airline mechanics who work at airports because, to save time, minor repairs and preflight checks often are made at the terminal. Mechanics often work under time pressure to maintain flight schedules or, in general aviation, to keep from inconveniencing customers. At the same time, mechanics have a tremendous responsibility to maintain safety standards and this can cause the job to be stressful.
Frequently, mechanics must lift or pull objects weighing as much as 70 pounds. They often stand, lie, or kneel in awkward positions and occasionally must work in precarious positions on scaffolds or ladders. Noise and vibration are common when testing engines. Aircraft mechanics generally work 40 hours a week on 8-hour shifts around the clock. Overtime work is frequent.
Aircraft mechanics held about 119,000 jobs in 1994. Over three-fifths of all salaried mechanics worked for airlines, nearly one-fifth for aircraft assembly firms, and nearly one-sixth for the Federal Government. Most of the rest were general aviation mechanics, the majority of whom worked for independent repair shops or companies that operate their own planes to transport executives and cargo. Very few mechanics were self-employed.
Most airline mechanics work at major airports near large cities. Civilian mechanics employed by the Armed Forces work at military installations. A large proportion of mechanics who work for aircraft assembly firms are located in California or Washington. Others work for the FAA, many at its facility in Oklahoma City. Mechanics for independent repair shops work at airports in every part of the country.
The majority of mechanics who work on civilian aircraft are certificated by the FAA as "airframe mechanic," "powerplant mechanic," or "repairer." Airframe mechanics are authorized to work on any part of the aircraft except the instruments, powerplants, and propellers. Powerplant mechanics are authorized to work on engines and to do limited work on propellers. Technicians called repairerswho are employed by FAA-certificated repair stations and air carrierswork on instruments and on propellers. Combination airframe-and-powerplant mechanicscalled A & P mechanicscan work on any part of the plane, and those with an inspector's authorization can certify inspection work completed by other mechanics. Uncertificated mechanics are supervised by those with certificates.
The FAA requires at least 18 months of work experience for an airframe, powerplant, or repairer's certificate. For a combined A & P certificate, at least 30 months of experience working with both engines and airframes are required. To obtain an inspector's authorization, a mechanic must have held an A & P certificate for at least 3 years. Applicants for all certificates also must pass written and oral tests and demonstrate that they can do the work authorized by the certificate. Most airlines require that mechanics have a high school diploma and an A & P certificate.
Although a few people become mechanics through on-the-job training, most learn their job in one of about 192 trade schools certified by the FAA. Student enrollment in these schools varies greatly; some have as few as 50 students while at least one school has about 800 students. FAA standards established by law require that certificated mechanic schools offer students a minimum of 1,900 actual class hours. Courses in these trade schools generally last from 2 years to 30 months and provide training with the tools and equipment used on the job. For an FAA certificate, attendance at such schools may substitute for work experience. However, these schools do not guarantee jobs or FAA certificates. Aircraft trade schools are placing more emphasis on newer technologies such as turbine engines, aviation electronics, and composite materialsincluding graphite, fiberglass, and boronall of which are increasingly being used in the construction of new aircraft. Less emphasis is being placed on older technologies such as woodworking and welding. Employers prefer mechanics who can perform a wide variety of tasks. Mechanics learn many different skills in their training that can be applied to other jobs.
Some aircraft mechanics in the Armed Forces acquire enough general experience to satisfy the work experience requirements for the FAA certificate. With additional study, they may pass the certifying exam. Generally, however, jobs in the military services are too specialized to provide the broad experience required by the FAA. Most mechanics have to complete the entire training program at a trade school, although a few receive some credit for the material they learned in the service. In any case, military experience is a great advantage when seeking employment; employers consider trade school graduates who have this experience to be the most desirable applicants.
Courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, electronics, computer science, and mechanical drawing are helpful because many of their principles are involved in the operation of an aircraft and knowledge of the principles often is necessary to make repairs. Courses that develop writing skills are also important because mechanics are often required to submit reports.
As new and more complex aircraft are designed, more employers are requiring mechanics to take on-going training to update their skills. Recent technological advances in aircraft maintenance necessitate a strong background in electronicsboth for acquiring and retaining jobs in this field. New FAA certification standards will make ongoing training mandatory. Every 24 months, mechanics will be required to take at least 16 hours of training to keep their certificate. Many mechanics take courses offered by manufacturers or employers, usually through outside contractors.
Aircraft mechanics must do careful and thorough work that requires a high degree of mechanical aptitude. Employers seek applicants who are self-motivated, hard-working, enthusiastic, and able to diagnose and solve complex mechanical problems. Agility is important for the reaching and climbing necessary for the job. Because they may work on the top of wings and fuselages on large jet planes, aircraft mechanics must not be afraid of heights.
As aircraft mechanics gain experience, they have the opportunity for advancement. Opportunities are best for those who have an aircraft inspector's authorization. A mechanic may advance to lead mechanic (or crew chief), inspector, lead inspector, and shop supervisor. In the airlines, where promotion is often determined by examination, supervisors may advance to executive positions. Those with broad experience in maintenance and overhaul have become inspectors with the FAA. With additional business and management training, some open their own aircraft maintenance facilities.
Job prospects for aircraft mechanics are expected to vary among types of employers. Opportunities are likely to be the best at the smaller commuter and regional airlines, FAA repair stations, and in general aviation. Because wages in these companies tend to be relatively low, there are fewer applicants for these jobs than for jobs with the major airlines. Also, some jobs will become available as experienced mechanics leave for higher paying jobs with airlines or transfer to another occupation. Mechanics will face more competition for airline jobs because the high wages and travel benefits attract more qualified applicants than there are openings. Prospects will be best for applicants with significant experience. Mechanics who keep abreast of technological advances in electronics, composite materials, and other areas will be in greatest demand. The number of job openings for aircraft mechanics in the Federal Government should decline as the size of the Armed Forces is reduced.
Employment of aircraft mechanics is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005 and provide some jobs. A growing population and rising incomes are expected to stimulate the demand for airline transportation, and the number of aircraft is expected to grow. However, employment growth will be restricted somewhat by increases in productivity resulting from greater use of automated inventory control and modular systems that speed repairs and parts replacement.
Most job openings for aircraft mechanics through the year 2005 will stem from replacement needs. Each year, as mechanics transfer to other occupations or retire, several thousand job openings will arise. Aircraft mechanics have a comparatively strong attachment to the occupation, reflecting their significant investment in training. However, because aircraft mechanics' skills are transferable to other occupations, some mechanics leave for work in a related field.
Declines in air travel during recessions force airlines to curtail the number of flights, which results in less aircraft maintenance and, consequently, layoffs for aircraft mechanics.
In 1994, the median annual salary of aircraft mechanics was about $36,858. The middle 50 percent earned between $27,976 and $47,112. The top 10 percent of all aircraft mechanics earned over $53,872 a year and the bottom 10 percent earned less than $20,072. Mechanics who worked on jets generally earned more than those working on other aircraft. Airline mechanics and their immediate families receive reduced fare transportation on their own and most other airlines.
Earnings of airline mechanics generally are higher than mechanics working for other employers. Average hourly pay for beginning aircraft mechanics ranged from $8.70 at the smaller turbo-prop airlines to $13.56 at the major airlines in 1994, according to the Future Aviation Professionals of America. Earnings of experienced mechanics ranged from $14.48 to $21.12 an hour.
Almost one-half of all aircraft mechanics, including those employed by some major airlines, are covered by union agreements. The principal unions are the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Transport Workers Union of America. Some mechanics are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Workers in some other occupations that involve similar mechanical and electrical work are electricians, elevator repairers, and telephone maintenance mechanics.
Information about jobs in a particular airline may be obtained by writing to the personnel manager of the company. For addresses of airline companies and information about job opportunities and salaries, contact:
FAPA, 4959 Massachusetts Blvd., Atlanta, GA 30337. (This organization may be called toll free at 1-800-JET-JOBS, extension 190.)
For general information about aircraft mechanics, write to:
Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, 500 Northwest Plaza, Suite 1016, St. Ann, MO 63074-2209.
For information on jobs in a particular area, contact employers at local airports or local offices of the State employment service.
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