Curiosity about “cars moving through the air” leads to a career in helicopter maintenance.
When Alex Atukwatse was a small boy grazing cattle on his family’s farm in the Sheema District of Western Uganda, he looked up at the sky and was amazed. Atukwatse recalls: “I was wondering, How are cars moving through the air?”
That question was the beginning of an insatiable curiosity about flight and a love affair with aviation that set Atukwatse on a career path leading first to the East African Civil Aviation Academy in Soroti, Uganda, then to Europe for advanced training, and finally to the Uganda Police Air Wing, where he works as a helicopter mechanic.
To gain his current position, Atukwatse had to overcome the high cost of training and he had to travel to Lithuania and Poland for postgraduate experience. He expresses gratitude for government financing that supported his training and for the instructors at the East African Civil Aviation Academy.
“Those instructors are my heroes. I arrived when I was young and didn’t know anything about working in aviation,” he says. “They really gave us a good background in aircraft systems.”
Finding Joy in Work
Atukwatse says he never takes a day of work for granted.
“Every time I enter our hangar, it’s a source of joy because I know how much work it takes to get a helicopter into the air,” he explains. “Our maintenance work helps the helicopter to fly safely, and that brings me so much joy.”
Safety, of course, is the highest priority. Among other activities, the police force uses helicopters for air ambulance, firefighting, and search-and-rescue.
Most days, Atukwatse reports to the Police Air Wing hangar at 8 am for a shift ending at 5 pm. But because of the nature of police work, he can be called in anytime. During a regular shift, he does maintenance work on the aircraft and records any technical work he performs on the helicopter. “In the morning, when the helicopter is due for a flight, I check the logbook first,” he says. “Then I check the engines. We have a checklist that we follow. If something is not in order, you should be in a position to know whether it can be addressed and go for a flight or [whether] the issue means it cannot go.
“There is no compromise on safety,” Atukwatse emphasizes, remembering an internship he completed with an experienced helicopter mechanic before beginning his current job. “On my first day of the internship, [the mechanic] looked at me and asked whether I would be willing to send my family on an aircraft that I just finished working on,” Atukwatse says. “Of course I said yes instantly. He said, ‘Perfect, that’s the spirit of a professional mechanic.’ From that day forward, I knew that as a mechanic I am responsible for the safety of the aircraft and the people on board.”
Scholarship Offers Opportunity
Atukwatse has been awarded an HAI scholarship and will use it to attend a training course offered by FlightSafety International at its facility at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (KDFW). Specifically, he’ll take a Line & Base Maintenance course for Pratt & Whitney Canada PW206/207 series engines.
“The opportunity is to train with the best,” Atukwatse says. “This scholarship has opened doors for me to train on Pratt & Whitney engines. I will also be stepping on American soil for the first time.”
A Fascinating Field
Atukwatse says he has achieved success because he defined his goals at an early age and maintained discipline in reaching his current position.
“You need to define what you want to become,” he explains. “You need to get committed to it. And, most importantly, you must maintain a positive attitude towards what you want to become and stay disciplined. Once you lose your discipline, you lose your character as well and it will not be easy to achieve what you are striving for.”
Atukwatse says he would recommend helicopter maintenance to a young person considering a career in aviation: “It is a very interesting, fascinating field, and I 100% encourage anyone interested in becoming a helicopter mechanic.”
“Going to Expo is so important, because it gives me the chance to meet new people in the industry, make connections, learn about aviation, and make myself better with the knowledge I receive,” says Olson. “To me, that’s priceless. If I hadn’t won the scholarship, I wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity that will help guide me in my career going forward.”
A big fan of engineer, pilot, entrepreneur, and YouTuber Mike Patey, Olson says every pilot should learn as much as possible from seasoned aviators, even those they’ve never met. Everyone has a story and experiences that can help you along the way, he says.
“I haven’t met Mike yet, but I’ve been watching his videos for years, and he’s so incredibly knowledgeable,” says Olson. “He uses his abilities, resources, and knowledge to help other people. Not only that, but he has a blast doing it. You can tell he has a sincere passion for what he does, and that’s inspiring to me.”
Olson gives a lot of credit to the pilots and mechanics in his unit, as well as his CFIs, because they’ve helped advance his career and have gotten him through some tough times.
“They’ve taken the time to teach me what they know to make me a better pilot, crew chief, and mechanic. I can never thank them enough.”