A&P Mechanic Shortage Future GA Threat
Aging Maintenance Personnel Bring Industry Change
September 1, 2021
In 59 years of flying, I've seen a LOT of "threats" to General Aviation. Government over-regulation, confiscatory taxes, fuel shortages, aircraft manufacturer bankruptcies, an 80% reduction in the number of FBOs, closed airports, pilot shortages, air traffic controller strikes-ALL were deemed a threat to General Aviation-yet the industry weathered them all. Here's another-a shortage of Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) Mechanics.
I like to think that by subscribing to multiple trade magazines, and "keeping my ear to the ground" in the industry, I would have anticipated this problem-but I didn't. We've dealt with so many "shortages" that we've become inured to the claims.
Here's how I missed it: Things were doing well in the industry prior to COVID-19. There were jobs for pilots, and there were new designs for airplanes for those that could afford them. If you COULDN'T afford a new airplane, there were plenty of serviceable older ones, OR, the ability to build one yourself through "fast-build" kits.
If you couldn't take the time to build an airplane, Certified LSA's-Light Sport Airplanes-were available. The old "Ultralights" (technically not an airplane) were still available for much less.
With COVID-19, the industry was virtually locked down-though airplanes were some of the best ways to "social distance," many public places (airlines, FBOs, airports, etc.) were closed. Private flying ground to a halt. The airlines furloughed thousands of pilots-resulting in elimination of the "pilot shortage"-a very real shortage prior to COVID-19.
Many mechanics and tech people also were furloughed, and a long recovery period was thought to be in the offing. Vaccines were produced, and the recovery of the industry happened FAST-people wanted to travel, and there was a pent-up demand for private air transportation. Pilots were rehired, and new trainees started at a torrid pace. What WASN'T foreseen was the aging of maintenance personnel.
Unlike pilots, maintenance personnel are not required to have a medicalcertificate...and unlike pilots, maintenance people tend to stay pretty close to home-often starting a maintenance facility at small airports to serve owners of GA aircraft.
These people operate for years at the airport, developing business relations and friendships that span decades. With the advent of COVID-19 and downturn in aircraft use, some of these mechanics scaled back operations to survive. Others simply closed up shop.
What WASN'T foreseen was the age of most of the maintenance providers – many are in their 70s! With no medical required for an A&P, they were free to work at their own pace, for as long as they wished. I should have seen it coming-for over a year, we were getting calls from aircraft owners NOT based at our airport, asking if we could do inspections on their aircraft, or pitot/static checks and transponder checks on their avionics. Why were these owners suddenly NOT patronizing their old maintenance providers? Since we were fully scheduled ourselves, we had to decline to do the work, and I didn't ask.
Problem Hits Home
All was well-until it wasn't! After COVID-19 got under control, pilots (as well as nearly every recreational activity) had a pent-up demand. What we DIDN'T see was that so many small FBOs had decided to only concentrate on their local customers-there simply were not enough remaining maintenance facilities to handle the backlog. WE were OK-until we weren't.
Our lead mechanic, Dan, has been with us for 33 years-I hired him right out of A&P school-the only job he has held in his adult life. The relationship worked well for all that time, and we worked on singles, twins, turboprops, jets, gliders, helicopters, light sport, ultralights-and even balloon components with no problems. We lost some mechanics over the years, but we were either able to replace them, or make do with "mechanic's helpers" to do the non-technical work. Like most FBOs, we "improvised and adapted." Unfortunately, Dan came down with some serious medical issues, and had to retire on short notice for health reasons.
What To Do?
I didn't think it would be too hard to replace Dan-mechanics are entrepreneurial sorts-"we will have to find someone else." I didn't know how hard it would be. I started calling an ever-expanding circle of fellow FBO operators-it seems everyone has the same problems!
Without naming names, most of us are 70-plus years old-what USED to be called "baby boomers" as we were born in the postwar years. We all wanted to work in the aviation business as long as possible-Aviation was our LIFESTYLE!
Operator after operator had the same story-"I slowed down with COVID-19-part of it was the business downturn, but a bigger part was the realization that there is more to life than working!" Some operators cut back their hours ("I cut back one quarter of my hours last year, and next year I'm cutting back to "half time")-and others simply refused to take on additional customers ("I have all I can do now to keep up!") Some simply locked the door-others cut back on the KIND of work they did ("no more engine work"-or "no more damage repair"-or "no more Part 135 airplanes with all of the record-keeping!")
In short, I was unable to find ANY mechanics looking for a job, or any operator willing to work on non-based aircraft in a radius of 75 miles or more-with one notable exception: One operator (I consider him one of the best) had lost some mechanics, but still ran a very well-run shop. He scaled back to "specialty" maintenance-certain brands-certain procedures. He also was forced to raise his shop rates substantially, in order to obtain quality and experienced personnel. Even with higher shop rates, he is as busy as he can handle.
What is the age of most FBOs or Maintenance Technicians? There are a lot of people in their 60s and 70s-and what is going to happen in the next few years?
HERE'S THE REALITY: THERE WILL BE A SHORTAGE OF TRAINED MAINTENANCE PERSONNEL-WE DON'T HAVE ENOUGH MAINTENANCE TECHS TO TAKE CARE OF OUR EXISTING FLEET OF AIRCRAFT!
What Can We Do?
For the short term-nothing (except try to hold on to your maintenance techs!) Now is NOT the time to be jumping from operator to operator. While we can teach pilots and flight instructors in a relatively short period of time (six months or so), the FAA requires mechanics to have 18 months of aircraft maintenance experience for either an airframe or powerplant certificate, or 30 months for both.
That means IF WE START TODAY, WE WILL HAVE TWO TO THREE YEARS BEFORE NEW MECHANICS START COMING OUT OF THE PIPELINE! Even then, the airlines will still be scooping them up! For requirements for A&P certification, read FAR 65.
One shortcut is an approved airframe and powerplant school. Two that are located in Minnesota immediately come to mind-Lake Superior College
in Duluth, and Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls.
South Dakota has Lake Area Technical College, an excellent school located at Watertown. The Lake Area Tech Aviation Department has received the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certificate of Excellence Diamond Award for five consecutive years.
These FAA-accredited schools can graduate a new A&P mechanic in 24 months-compared to the 30 months of experience required under Part 65. They may also be able to include flight training as part of their curriculum.
There is also another option for those with some prior mechanical skills or experience-DEMONSTRATING YOUR EXISTING SKILLS.
My "contribution to the war effort" while in the U.S. Army was running a Base Flying Club at Fort Campbell, Kentucky I already had my flight instructor rating when I went in, so I was tagged to be the head of the Base Flying Club for Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The club was based on the local civil airport.
We had so many Army personnel that wanted to become pilots that I maxed out on hours of dual instruction given nearly every day-and our aircraft were flying 100 hours a month-faster than the local FBO could keep up with the maintenance.
I contacted the Post Education Officer about getting some trained military aviation maintenance guys to help out-and ran into a number of government-related issues.
The Army guys had nothing to do for their final six to eight months of Army life-they were just marking time-unproductive.
They had been trained by the Army in maintaining aircraft-and had 13 additional months or more experience in doing so "In Country" in Vietnam-not quite enough to qualify for their Airframe or Powerplant ratings-but close.
I went to the Base Education Officer to see if we could design a course that would allow them to get their A&P ratings-showed him the FARs, and how the Army could help them obtain the ratings.
He adapted an existing Army program called "Project Transition"-a learning experience to help those separating from the Army to use their skills in civilian life-Military truck drivers became CIVIL truck drivers-military cooks became CIVIL chefs with additional training-AND OUR MILITARY MECHANICS COULD BE TRANSITIONED TO CIVIL MECHANICS!
We consulted with the local FAA rep, and discussed the hours and anticipated work for mechanics. They would be paid minimum wage in addition to their Army pay.
They would work under the supervision of the FBO chief mechanic-himself a highly skilled Air Force retiree. He would assure compliance with the work, the training, and the instructional aspects-and at the end of their time in the Army, would provide the required documentation for the FAA to consider.
The program was a huge success-and was written up in Army Times. By the time I left the Army, 11 men had received either an Airframe or Powerplant rating, and there were perhaps 30 more in the "pipeline"-eagerly waiting to participate.
I also did something similar for two deserving people I employed at one of my FBOs. One had a military background similar to that described above, but had been out of the military for some time. I helped him in dealing with the FAA-his calendar time had lapsed for his military experience, but I wrote a letter to the FAA documenting the employee's time and work on assisting our mechanics in maintaining our school aircraft-countersigned and verified by our mechanics. The FAA signed off his experience-he went to a school for three weeks to prep him for the practical and oral tests-and he got his A&P certificate.
The next one was similar-the employee had worked for me since he was 14-had worked in the shop assisting mechanics-had obtained all of his ratings up through all three instructor ratings and an ATP-and was constantly looking to improve his aviation knowledge.
I told him what was involved. I advised him that the biggest mistake people make in making application for the FAA to certify their experience is "over claiming"-doing MORE than the FAA required. It doesn't help-it HURTS your chances. Read the FAA requirements carefully-what the FAA inspector needs to see is that you meet the requirements of the FARs to take the test-NOT to issue you the license. Have all of your documents in order for presentation-including letters of verification from your employer, trade school, and those who supervised you when working on an aircraft. Pay stubs or W-2s help verify your employment. Your mission is not to convince the FAA representative that you are the "ace of the base"-but that you have the ability and desire to learn the trade!
In your FAA interview, a discussion usually involves your meeting the
calendar time for the ratings (either 18 or 30 months). That leads to the question of "what is a month" for meeting the experience requirements. Does doing an oil change every month qualify for experience? No. The FAA looks for total experience. Obviously, if you worked as a helper under the direction of an A&P mechanic for 18 months and he attests to that-you should qualify.
Some FAA personnel like to see cumulative HOURS worked under the
program-the equivalent of 18 months based on a 40-hour week. Some look for QUALITY hours-time spent working with a master craftsman A&P is VALUABLE! Be able to tell the FAA inspector exactly what you did and what you learned-but again, DO NOT OVERCLAIM!
During the FAA Inspector interview with the candidate, I asked the inspector, "What constitutes a month of experience?" I was shocked by
his answer-"I'll give you an answer. Some time ago, I had a candidate come in for a verification interview just like this one. The candidate had worked for a local airline for 4 years-but his work consisted solely of removing or reinstalling lavatory modules in the airplane as they underwent inspections. He was able to quickly and easily describe to me exactly the procedure for doing his job. I gave him the required credit-he was "working under the direction of mechanics'-he was "utilizing the tools of a mechanic"-he was "following the procedures as outlined by the manufacturer and the certificate holder (airline)-his "finished product" was verified by an inspector, and his inspector provided the documentation and a very nice letter of recommendation!"
For those who have built a homebuilt aircraft, or restored a certified aircraft, you already have a head start on the required experience-THOSE HOURS COUNT-but you need to document them. You need to do that as part of obtaining a Certificate of Airworthiness for the project anyway. As the local FAA inspector told my employee-yes, you can include the hours reading blueprints, setting up equipment, measuring, ordering parts-ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE CHARGEABLE BY AN A&P-and you are following the procedures of an A&P. That's a BIG advantage! If you have 1,000 hours "hands on time" working on your homebuilt or restoration, count it! And document everything. If you have hours doing (constructive) thinking about how to do a procedure-that is "following the procedures"-and the same for researching how to do a project-or even ordering parts-ALL OF THESE ARE THINGS AN A&P DOES IN THE COURSE OF HIS OR HER WORK.
EAA Sport Aviation had a brief note in its last issue: "The FAA published an update to an internal guidance document that reversed the decades-old practice of awarding A&P credit to homebuilders....EAA is actively working with the FAA to reinstate this pathway to the A&P and has suggested some possible solutions that the agency viewed favorably...." The FAA, as a large government entity, often has conflicting statements. This likely will be restored, so document your time!
Are you a Light Sport pilot? You can take a three-day course to allow you to maintain your single-place Light Sport aircraft. We hosted the popular Rainbow Aviation FAA-approved school for it. It allows you to maintain your own Light Sport Aircraft, AND since it is an FAA approval, you can log time you spent in school AND the time you spent maintaining your LSA.
You also have the option of attending the three-week long Light Sport Repairman Certification Course. Upon graduation, you can maintain LSA aircraft-AND CHARGE FOR IT! The time in school-and the time you spend working on LSAs counts toward you're A&P required time! Once you have the FAA signoff, you can take the oral and practical test from the FAA, or, like a pilot, you can go to an FAA designated examiner. Like the FAA flight tests, there are publications and schools to help you through the process-usually taking two to three weeks, including two days for the tests. If you are a Minnesota resident (other states have similar programs) and are age 62 or older, you can attend a state trade school tuition free! Visit https://www.aseniorcitizenguideforcollege.com/2011/01/minnesota.html. You may even be able to attend in another state if they have reciprocity agreements with Minnesota. Use it on your winter vacation-it beats playing "pickle ball!"
Editor's Note: This is Jim's 60th year of flying-he soloed on his 16th birthday. He has been in the FBO business for 52 years, running multiple FBOs in Minnesota and other states-the last 40 in Albert Lea, Minnesota. If you have a comment about getting more people into General Aviation aircraft servicing, contact Jim at (507) 373-0608 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.