by Thomas Biller
Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2017
The road to aircraft mechanic certification is well established and straightforward: Attend a Part 147 school or train on the job to meet established FAA hands-on experience requirements. Once complete, you take your written exams, oral exams, and finally the practical evaluation to finally earn the prestigious title of “Certified Airframe and Powerplant Technician” (A&P)! If only such a path existed to certify an avionics technician.
I’ve talked with many technicians, supervisors and employers across the country and without a doubt, finding qualified avionics technicians is getting harder and harder to do. Many repair stations rely on graduates from community college electronics programs, as they can operate under their license and have the basic skills in electronics and test equipment to easily learn on the job as they go.
Another traditional avenue to find avionics technicians is through the U.S. military. Since the military is very focused on mission accomplishment, they train their technicians in very specific parts of the aircraft, such as avionics. Many veterans get avionics jobs after leaving active duty as most are able to at least gain their airframe license through testing and taking the oral and practical exams like the traditional mechanic. Many places exist around the country, which specialize in prepping former military technicians to pass their exams, all within a short period of time. This all takes place at the same site and is very convenient for the veteran. However, many veterans choose to attend a full Part 147 school to round off their knowledge and learn the new world of the FAA and the regulations, which is quite a change after living in the military world.
As far as formal schools, looking across the spectrum there are many Part 147 schools that also have an avionics program as add-ons to the basic A&P certification. The majority of these programs focus on line maintenance with a good mix of general aviation and commercial aviation perspectives covered. Our program at Northland is one such example.
Either way, you end up with an avionics technician with no real way to measure where they stand in knowledge or more importantly performance of job essential skills. There are some national avionics certifications, such as the infamous FCC GROL and Radar Endorsement.
These are the only regulatory licenses a mechanic can get to show they are qualified to work on avionics systems. The problem as we all know is that these tests and question pools are openly available for anyone to use and study. Just study the test, take it, and you have a license! This doesn’t really tell a prospective employer what skills you have, if any at all.
The National Center for Aerospace and Transportation Technologies (NCATT) came along and started a much more robust testing program for a basic avionics technician. Their
Aircraft Electronics Technician (AET) exam is a comprehensive electronics/airframe exam consisting of 75 questions providing 2 hours to complete. Once you pass this exam you can take the endorsement exams for avionics specific disciplines: Radio Communication Systems, Dependent Navigation Systems, On-board Entertainment Systems, and Autonomous Navigation Systems. These tests are not printed and the question banks are kept secret. These tests require an individual to have a good understanding of all areas tested, and most of the avionics programs in the country prepare students for these exams.
NCATT was recently merged with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which has a great history of industry standards and certifications over the past 100 years.
Although these are comprehensive tests that accurately gauge your knowledge of avionics, they still lack in the hands-on evaluation area.
Luckily, Space TEC, the National Science Foundation’s National Resource Center for aerospace technician education, was funded to establish industry-wide, performance-based certifications. Established in 2011, they have grown the network of regional testing centers to over 34 nationwide. Their affiliate CertTEC maintains many industry certifications, from aircraft assembly to basic electronics and soon the newly developed avionics certification. What this means for avionics is we now have a true written and performance based evaluation to earn certification in basic electronics and by the end of March 2017, the first avionics performance-based evaluation will be in testing at select schools for validation to implement nationwide. More information on Space TEC and CertTEC can be found on their websites: http://www.spacetec.us/ and http://www.certtec.com/.
This is great news for the avionics industry, as employers will have a standard for what a qualified avionics technician should be able to do, no matter where they start out in the field.
To give a brief overview, a student would work through the basic electronics certification. This is accomplished using the NIDA-based electronics training system through DC, AC, Analog, and Digital until certified in all areas. Nida Corporation is a world leader in the development, design, and installation of sophisticated electronics training systems. As they progress through an avionics program, they would use the EASA modules 3, 4, 5, 13, and 14 (which correspond to existing FAA subject areas) to prepare for their written exams and practical hands-on evaluations using the newly developed avionics card sets for the NIDA system.
There are many ways to administer the program so it is easy to implement into existing avionics training programs. Military members even have a self-study path available to get certified and avoid going to a formal training program. We believe this will be the standard for avionics certification going forward as Space TEC is currently in contract negotiations with ASTM to combine forces and have one written test with one practical evaluation.
As we raise awareness of this new standard and it spreads throughout the industry, eventually the hope is we would end up with the FAA establishing a formal structure for avionics just like the traditional A&P mechanic. I know this is a long way off, but it’s greatly needed as the technology in aviation continues to get more complex and computer oriented. I think many in the industry would agree, we need a way to certify and standardize avionics certification to align with how we certify our mechanics. Using the new CertTEC model, every region of the country is represented with testing centers and this will only continue to grow. As aircraft get more and more complicated, it just makes sense to have a standardized testing and certification process to establish a baseline for what today’s avionics technicians will need to do on the job, and in my humble opinion, it’s long overdue!