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Most travelers hardly think twice about flying thousands of feet above the ground. The confidence they have in aircraft is a tribute to the mechanics (also referred to as technicians) who keep them in top operating condition.

Many mechanics specialize in scheduled maintenance required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Following a schedule that is based on the number of hours flown, calendar days, cycles of operation, or a combination of these factors, mechanics inspect the engines, landing gear, instruments, pressurized sections, accessories--brakes, valves, pumps, and air-conditioning systems, for example--and 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. Work or defective parts are repaired or replaced. They also may repair sheet-metal surfaces, measure the tension of control cables, or check for corrosion, distortion, and cracks in the fuselage, wings, and tail. Mechanics tests the equipment to make sure the repairs were made 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 test equipment to make sure no wires are broken or shorted. 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, may specialize in one section of a particular type of aircraft, such as the engine, hydraulic, or electrical system. In small, independent repair shops, mechanics usually inspect and repair many different types of aircraft.

Working Conditions

Mechanics usually work in hangers or other indoor areas. However, if the hangers are full or if repairs must be made quickly, they may work outdoors, sometimes in unpleasant weather. 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 the pressure of time to maintain flight schedules or, in general aviation, to keep from inconveniencing customers. At the same time, mechanics must maintain safety standards.

Frequently, mechanics must lift or pull as much as 50 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.

Very few mechanics were self-employed. Most airline mechanics work near large cities at the airlines' main stops. Many are civilians employed by the Armed Forces and work at military aviation installations. Others work for the FAA, many in the headquarters at Oklahoma City. Mechanics for independent repair shops work at airports in every part of the country.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

The Majority of mechanics who work on civilian aircraft are certified by the FAA as "airframe mechanic," "powerplant mechanic," or "repairman." 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 repairmen--who are employed by appropriately rated FAA-certificated repair stations and air carriers--do work on instruments and major work on propellers. Combination airframe-and-powerplant mechanics can work on any part of the plane, and those with an inspector's authorization can certify inspection work completed by other mechanics. Uncertified mechanics are supervised by those with certificates.

The FAA requires at least 18 months of work experience for an airframe, powerplant, or repairman's certificate. For a combined airframe-and-powerplant 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 airframe-and-powerplant 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.

Although a few people become mechanics through on-the-job training, most learn their job in the Armed Forces or in trade schools certified by the FAA. 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.

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 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.

A high school diploma or its equivalent is necessary for all prospective aircraft mechanics. 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. As new and more complex aircraft are designed, mechanics must update their skills. Recent technological advances in aircraft maintenance necessitate a strong background in electronics--both for acquiring and retaining jobs in this field. A working knowledge of composite materials such as graphite is also important, as such materials are increasingly being used in the construction of new aircraft.

Aircraft mechanics must do careful and thorough work which requires high mechanical aptitude. Agility is important for the reaching and climbing necessary for the job. Aircraft mechanics must not be afraid of heights since they may work on the top of wings and fuselages on large jet planes.

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 ship 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 may become inspectors with the FAA. With additional business and management training, some open their own aircraft maintenance facilities.

Overall, aircraft mechanics--particularly those with work experience--are expected to have excellent job opportunities since the number of job openings is expected to exceed the supply of qualified applicants. Growth in demand for the services of aircraft mechanics coupled with an expected wave of retirements should provide many job openings.

Job opportunities are likely to be best in general aviation. Since wages in small companies tend to be relatively low, there generally are fewer applicants for these jobs than for airline jobs. Also, some jobs will become available as experienced mechanics leave for better paying jobs with airlines or large private companies. Mechanics may face some competition for airline jobs because the high wages and travel benefits attract more qualified applicants. The number of job openings for aircraft mechanics in the Federal Government will fluctuate with changes in defense spending. Mechanics who keep abreast of the technological advances in electronics, composite materials, and other areas will be in greatest demand.

The number of aircraft mechanics is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. 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 increase in productivity resulting from greater use of automated inventory control and modular systems which speed repairs and parts replacement. Most job openings are expected to arise from the need to replace mechanics who transfer to other fields of work or stop working altogether.

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. Earnings

Some 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, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America.

Workers in some other occupations that involve similar mechanical and electrical work are electricians, elevator repairers, and telephone maintenance mechanics.

For information on jobs in a particular area, contact employers at local airports or local offices of the State employment service.