T Gates, at the International Terminal, ATL Airport, sometime in the early 1990s. It is late, the second shift ends at 2300, and we button up this hydraulic access panel. The crew is tired and ready to call it a night. Everyone is careful where they step; Skydrol is slippery, and the stuff is everywhere. This Lockheed L-1011 TriStar will finish her stay with us and fly back across the Atlantic Ocean in the morning.
The first thing we heard was the thrust of the engines spooling up rapidly. Making a left up the ramp requires a little oomph to get over a hump in the ramp. Next, debris littered the area as the jet exhaust spewed everything not nailed down our way. This jet blast included all the spilled Skydrol fluid that had puddled under our aircraft. Skydrol stings when it gets all over you. In the dark. When you thought it was quitting time. It stings badly.
After the bad words ceased, everyone inventoried the tools, mopped up the spillage, and returned to the line maintenance locker room. Red-faced, a little sore, and very irritated, but otherwise, OK. There has got to be a better way to make a living. The flight line is no joke and not for the faint of heart. But I am an aircraft mechanic, went to A&P [airframe and powerplant maintenance] school, and have my certificate. This work is my destiny.
After cleaning up, I walked into the line maintenance break room and asked to see the foreman.
“Fred,” I began. “When I make junior mechanic, what are my options here?”
He looked up at me exasperated and said, “You either work on the line or in the hangar. Now catch the crew bus. I have paperwork to do.”
That was all. Thanks, good talk.
Shortly after that, I left the company following a workforce reduction. The next 27 years took me into various positions, some on the concrete, others on the carpet. I shared this journey with you guys in my introductory post, “Passion and Purpose Fuel Lives and Aircraft,” and never looked back. As is the great circle of life, I recently returned to the company where I started my A&P journey, and I am neither on the line nor on the hangar floor.
No one could have foretold nor predicted the state of affairs today. Certainly not on that dark night under the belly of a TriStar. My current position did not exist until a few years ago. It is the product of a changing time. As a technical analyst, I must be proficient with aircraft systems and how they operate, hence why you need an A&P certificate to hold this position. It is a mandatory requirement. We have come a long way, baby.
What else can you do with an A&P besides work line maintenance or bang rivets on the hangar floor? Great question! Read on, young grasshopper.
Aircraft and Component Work
When most people think of A&P mechanics, they instantly associate them with an airline. Do not get me wrong, airlines are a great place to work, and one can make a good living there. I have friends I started on the line with that still physically work on aircraft today, and they love it. It is part of their DNA. Not everyone wants to spin wrenches in the trenches for their entire careers. What else can they do?
Some airlines have a mechanism for mechanics to move from the concrete to the carpet eventually. Piedmont Airlines provides information about the path for A&P mechanics beyond physically working on aircraft.
Here are just a few examples of life beyond the line:
Lead Mechanic. Lane Community College has an excellent description for this role: “A lead aircraft mechanic is responsible for planning and leading the work of aircraft mechanics.” This fails to mention guzzling gallons of cheap black coffee, verbally berating new hires, and creative writing for logbook entries when the third shift bailed out without giving a good turnover.
Quality Control Inspector. Aircraft inspectors ensure that everything is running smoothly. Additional duties include arguing the difference between a – and a /, starching their white gloves, and scheduling an inspection just as you need to push back for a flight.
Maintenance Control Center Fleet Planner. These folks make decisions for short-term planning of aircraft readiness. The best ones have an office pool to see if specific tail numbers will ever leave heavy check.
In other areas, A&P mechanics can also ply their trade at airlines or MROs to work in the training department, flight simulators, or as a technical analyst.
One area of aviation that does not involve direct contact with aircraft or components like an MRO is to work in the supply chain. Aftermarket aircraft spare parts are a massive concern as aircraft age and resources are stretched thin in the post-pandemic world. According to this report from Reuters, “few have been spared the impact of shortages or delays.” Airline and MRO entities are looking for relief anywhere they can find it. Some distribution companies staff technical sales representatives and product managers with A&P mechanics.
While certainly not a requirement or prerequisite, having a technically trained team member directing business operations can undoubtedly add credibility to one’s business. Technical sales reps work with customers to use the company’s products and services. Product managers generally specialize in a commodity and engage the vendors to stock and market products.
I spent some time this week with Alan Howell, business development director at Collins Aerospace and fellow A&P technician. When it comes to A&Ps as sales reps, “Having a technical acumen enables aircraft mechanics to customize offerings that meet specific customer requirements,” he said. That is a very polished way to say we knew how aircraft systems interacted. That and we have street cred.
Rockets! When Mike Moore joined Virgin Galactic as executive vice president of Spaceline Technical Operations, a few things immediately came to mind. 1) Intergalactic travel is cool, and I could see why an airline executive would jump ship for a space gig. 2) If space companies need airline executives, they also need a technical workforce. 3) What better way to fill those ranks than with aircraft mechanics? A glance at their job board confirmed my suspicions. Several positions, such as specialist manufacturing systems technician, technical writer, and lead test technician, are listed.
In Part I of this series, I introduced you to my colleague Skip Moore, a Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology graduate. After beginning his career in maintenance for Republic Airlines, Skip followed a similar path as I did. We even did business together with our respective general aviation companies. Skip and I both began life on the aircraft, and now we use our A&P certificates for a different mission.
You are most likely saying, I thought we would talk about non-aviation jobs. Well, I am getting to that. Skip’s alma mater, Spartan, answers the question, “Can I do anything else with an A&P license besides work on aircraft?” on its A&P school information page.
Let’s identify a few of these jobs. Some fields that could attract aircraft mechanics are gas turbine powerplants, turbine-powered yachts, robot assembly line repair, and medical devices. Knowing how to troubleshoot complex electro-mechanical systems can open more doors than people think. Auto racing is another excellent arena for the right person.
I keep reviewing the Virgin Galactic career page, and the thought struck me, what a great time to enter the industry. When I turned out of A&P school in the early 1990s, you either went to the airlines or to general aviation; some lucky few got corporate jobs. Technological advancements are creating opportunities that did not exist even a decade ago. Hopefully, someone will see this column and know of a young person that is technical and looking for a career path.
Aviation is not immune to outsourcing; much of the heavy check maintenance is done in Asia now. Great opportunity for those countries, but fewer jobs for kids in the states. The best way to combat that is to get started, learn everything you can, and either progress up the food chain or gain a highly desirable skill like welding.
The future is now. As aerospace evolves, there will be more opportunities to thrive. Unmanned aircraft systems, eVTOLs, and zero-emissions solutions will stretch the horizon even further. How far do you want to go?