by Zackary Nicklin
Northland Community & Technical College
Since the time of Charles Taylor, there was a skill-set almost written in stone as to what made a good, well-rounded, Aviation Maintenance Technician. You had to be able to troubleshoot and repair engines, fix or fabricate portions of an airframe generally made from wood, cloth or metal, adjust control cables and maintain the integrity of hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Although there is a bit more to it than that, these were the main skills needed to keep most aircraft in the air. These basic skills are still very much needed in the industry, but the model of maintainers only needing these skills, is slowly going the way of vacuum tubes, carbureted car engines, and dope and fabric airframes. We can find examples of all of these products in use today, but their applications are fewer and farther between. The same can be said of an aircraft maintainer who is comfortable with where he or she is, and sees no need to expand his or her knowledge base.
In my admittedly short time in the aviation industry, I have met maintainers from across the spectrum, everyone from the owner/operator who fixes his own aircraft, all the way up to corporate and commercial maintainers who service entire fleets. A common thread among many of them seems to be an aversion to technology outside of their comfort zone. Upgrade an engine and many of us will run for our tools to be the first in line to install it, but add a new microcontroller, and many of us will shy away so suddenly, one would think it was a live snake. This is the barrier that the next generation of maintainers will have to break.
Aircraft are becoming more and more complex and integrated every day, and if we want to keep these birds in the sky, we will have to pursue education that is outside of the average maintainers comfort zone. We will have to start wrapping our greasy hands and mechanical minds around a new group of skills, such as composites, computers, networking, routers, and virtualization software, and delve even deeper into electronics.
Since 2007, Boeing has been producing the 787 “Dreamliner.” The airframe is primarily made of composite material and contains roughly 35 tons of carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP). According to the National Institute of Aviation Research, the aerospace composite market is set to quadruple over the next 20 years. Gulfstream, Lockheed Martin, Learjet, Cirrus and many other small manufacturers are moving even farther into composite aircraft structures and soon this is going to be the rule, rather than the exception at your local airport. Getting into a good composites program, or even just taking a class to improve familiarity with terms and techniques, will pay off.
Using the 787 example, Boeing has decided to move to a bleedless architecture for a few of their systems. This means bleed air and even hydraulic systems are being minimized in favor of electronics-based systems. The APU start, wing ice protection, cabin pressurization, brakes and engine start systems are now electronically controlled. These improvements save space and weight, while decreasing the mechanical complexity of these systems.
The avionics suites in many aircraft are moving quickly from old “steam” gauges to new integrated flight systems with large LCD displays and many menu options that can show you everything from your artificial horizon to an imaginary highway in the sky where the pilot simply has to fly from box to box all the way to his destination.
Moore’s law, together with Dennard’s scaling, tell us that integrated circuits, like those used in computers, will double in performance every two (2) years and reduce the power needed for that performance by nearly 50% in every generation.
You may not have heard of either of those terms before, but you can see the reality around you every day. Cell phones, computers, watches, and GPS are all getting smaller, lighter and faster, leading us to find more compatible uses. This is great for the pilot who can touch a button and get up-to-date weather information displayed on a full color moving map, or have the aircraft not only fly itself, but even land and take-off at the push of a button.
As maintainers, we will have to know how to isolate faults in these complex computer systems, upgrade hardware and update software or firmware without compromising the integrity of the system. These systems can also help with troubleshooting.
Many computer systems come with the ability to run a BIT or Built In self-Test, giving maintenance personnel a trouble code that could potentially isolate the fault. If you pair that ability with a handheld computer, then with the right software, your computer could indicate the correct procedure in an electronic aircraft manual and automatically generate the forms necessary for the repair.
We have all heard the term “networking” before, but many of us associate this with going to an industry event and meeting your peers. Here I am referring to being able to make computers and their associated networks speak to each other. Whether it is a wired or wireless network, some type of IP addressing will need to be done.
Over 41 commercial airlines across the globe offer some type of Wi-Fi for their passengers, while flight attendants carry handheld computers to process credit and debit card transactions and people conduct business using VoIP phone systems. Everything from in-flight entertainment systems, to security and access control systems, can be controlled through a computer network. Today, and into the foreseeable future, aircraft mechanics are going to need to broaden their basic skill-set to stay competitive in this industry. Northland Community and Technical College’s Aviation Maintenance Technician program, along with the nation’s first Unmanned Aerial Systems Maintenance program, can teach you the skills needed to make you stand out from your peers at your next job interview or performance review. Set yourself up for success and a career where you love what you do.