Stay Current On Technological Advances or Fall Behind

by Tom Biller

These are exciting times in the world of aviation! Never have we seen so much innovation and promise of technology impacting its future. Buzz words like NextGen, sense and avoid, drones, etc., seem to jump out at us every day from TV commercials and magazine articles. All of these things involve increasingly advanced technical skills to maintain and repair the more advanced fleet of general aviation and commercial aircraft.

In speaking with many local Part 145 repair stations, the need for skilled installation technicians is skyrocketing and will continue for the foreseeable future. According to data obtained by the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) through its network of repair stations, the demand just to meet the ADS-B mandate by the 2020 deadline will cause 73% of these repair stations to increase new hires just to keep up. So what can current industry mechanics do to get in on this wave of opportunity?

That’s where schools like Northland Community and Technical College located in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, come in. Today’s modern avionics suites and integrated systems are not your father’s avionics as the old saying goes. Technicians in the field require new and updated skill sets in addition to the tried and true methods already in place in many existing Part 147 Aircraft Maintenance Technical (AMT) schools.

When you think of a modern glass cockpit, you are essentially talking about computer maintenance and networking. Things like data bus and IP addresses are becoming more and more entrenched in what today’s avionics technicians need to know and apply on the job. Many newer systems are more likely to have software issues versus hardware failures that require traditional troubleshooting skills. Technicians need newer and more specialized test equipment to troubleshoot some of these systems, especially when it comes to the satellite portions. Another area we see changing rapidly is “aircraft construction.”

With the push to get more bang for the buck, many aircraft companies are going heavily toward composite construction. The materials save weight while increasing strength, which in turn makes it less costly to operate the aircraft. However, using these materials puts many limitations on mechanics currently in the field.

Many Part 147 schools are addressing this by expanding core curriculum to include heavier doses of the composites process and more importantly, how to recognize damage and make repairs if needed.

At Northland, we go a step further and offer advanced composites in addition to the normal training received as part of the AMT program. This training in addition to advanced avionics is all covered in our one-of-a-kind Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Maintenance Program.

Although known as the first and only current UAS Maintenance Program in the nation, don’t let the unmanned wording throw you. All of the courses prepare you for modern manned aircraft, as well as the unmanned versions. In fact, many technology breakthroughs for aviation are coming from the research involved with the unmanned systems.

Northland currently offers a two-semester, 30-credit certification program for UAS maintenance that covers all of the updated skill sets needed for manned and unmanned aviation. We cover advanced avionics and installation, composite repair, computer networking, hardware maintenance, UAS ground station, and unmanned vehicle maintenance. We are the one stop shop to get all your skills updated and some very credible industry certifications.

Northland Community and Technical College is a recognized National Center for Aerospace & Transportation Technologies (NCATT) training provider for avionics as well as unmanned systems. We prepare you for the increasingly in demand Aircraft Electronics Technician Certification exam with NCATT. Once you pass, we prepare you for the endorsement exams covering communications, navigation, and autonomous systems. Finally, to culminate the 30-credit program, Northland, along with NCATT, offers the UAS certification exam. We helped develop this test and still maintain continued feedback and updates to NCATT to keep the test accurate and relevant.

In the July issue of AEAs magazine, Brad Hayden, founder of Robotic Skies, mentions the huge potential for UAV maintenance in repair stations nationwide. Although we don’t know exactly how that will play out, you can rest assured that business will only increase. Another major shift for current technicians will be the fact that the UAV itself is only half of the equation. Almost any sizeable platform requires a ground station, which essentially serves as the flight deck. These “flight decks” can range from an iPad, all the way up to a hardened central control building. So it’s safe to assume the entire UAS system, including link antennas, ground control, and the vehicle itself, would require established inspection and repair criteria to meet airworthiness standards.  This is a whole new ball game as these ground control stations are often very sophisticated and software centric. Even the user interfaces are more akin to a video game system than anything we deal with in our glass cockpits. It’s all about graphical interfaces and streaming video or data. Many ground stations use extensive fiber optic networks, so learning fiber repairs and fabrication is a critical skill when dealing with them.

The bottom line is if you aren’t updating skills and continuously learning in this business, you are falling further behind. I liken what we are seeing in aviation right now to the early 1980s when the U.S. car companies were introducing the first computer controlled cars. We had a severe shortage of qualified mechanics to fix them and spent many years just catching up to the technology! I see that happening with aviation at this moment. Technological advances are out-pacing us right now and with a vast majority of the current work force nearing the retirement years, it’s not hard to see we are going to need new pipelines of skilled technicians to keep aviation moving forward. One thing for sure, change and innovation are inevitable and will occur with or in spite of us.

The question then becomes, what can I do to keep my skills current when I’m working a full-time job and have a family to take care of?

Time is the master of us all and finding the extra time to update skill-sets can seem impossible. But there are always things you can do, such as taking a networking class from your local community college, or attending professional development classes, such as those offered by AEA.

Here at Northland, we offer our entire 1st semester online now through the use of tele presence technology. We can also customize our training to fit your needs. For instance, avionics technicians probably don’t need avionics courses, but may be interested in networking or ground control station maintenance. We can minimize your time away from work by tailoring the program to your situation and needs.

The sky is truly the limit with where you can go and what you can work on in today’s aviation environment. Northland Community and Technical College has graduates all over the world working with the Department of Defense in places like Italy and Guam or right here in the U.S. with companies like Northrup Grumman, General Atomics, and Raytheon to name a few. So don’t hesitate any longer, take the next step for your future and find ways to stay abreast of industry trends, even if school time doesn’t fit your current life situation. There is always a way and the only limitation is you!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Biller is an avionics instructor at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. He can be reached at 1-800-959-6282.

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