2021 DecemberROTOR MagazineCurrent Issue Features

Training the Modern Helicopter AMT

By January 18, 2022No Comments
SUU Aviation Photo

SUU provides helicopter focus and updated options for electronics, management skills.

Southern Utah University (SUU) had a very real problem. One of the nation’s largest university-based helicopter flight-training programs, the Cedar City, Utah–based school strained to attract and retain qualified airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics with helicopter experience.

“We struggled to bring in maintenance personnel because of our rural location,” says Jared Britt, SUU’s director of global aviation maintenance training. “Most of the time, we’d hire people with no helicopter experience, and they’d build experience on the job. Then they would leave us in two years.

“We realized we needed to control the type of education mechanics get so we could be sure they met our needs from Day 1. This meant they would also better meet the needs of the industry,” Britt adds. “We basically developed a helicopter maintenance training program from our own necessity.”

Having seen the university’s investment in flight training pay off—SUU annually graduates at least 10% of all new rotary-wing pilots in the United States—SUU leadership gave its growing aviation department the green light to add aviation maintenance technician (AMT) training.

The university hired Britt in 2016 to research and develop the program. With a deep background in helicopter maintenance and maintenance management, Britt saw the opportunity to do more than create the country’s first university-based helicopter AMT training program. He wanted SUU to prepare graduates to meet both the changing needs of aviation maintenance and the demands of aviation leadership roles.

After almost three years of planning, curriculum development, hiring, and fundraising—all while creating industry partnerships to effect a change in the regulations governing AMT schools—the SUU AMT Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree program launched in January 2020.

SUU AMT students receive instruction on how to safely hoist an engine out of an airframe. (HAI/Jen Boyer)

The 63-credit degree program runs for an average of 18 months. In addition to general education courses, the program includes a core AMT curriculum split into three sections: aviation generals, airframe, and powerplant courses.

Unlike many other AMT programs, the SUU degree puts considerable emphasis on rotorcraft maintenance. In addition to classroom work, students receive hands-on training on donated airframes and powerplants of both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Additionally, one of the six required airframe courses is focused solely on helicopters, to give students an in-depth understanding of rotorcraft theory and aerodynamics, structures, main rotor systems, anti-torque rotor systems, flight controls, assembly and rigging, stabilization, vibration, blade tracking, and rotorcraft maintenance and inspection.

“It’s incredible to me that many new A&Ps come out of their programs licensed to work on helicopters but without ever having touched one. We thought it was important to expose students to rotorcraft from the beginning,” says Britt. “At SUU, helicopters are not an add-on but an essential part of maintenance education.”

Evolving Standards for AMT Education

SUU began to develop its AMT program just as the Aviation Technical Education Council (ATEC) and the industry were turning up the heat on the FAA to change the antiquated rules outlining the skills, hours of training, and topics that an AMT school must teach and that mechanic candidates must test for to receive their A&P license.

Not revised since 1962, these regulations are vastly out-of-date and offer very limited flexibility both in subject matter and how those subjects are taught. For example, under the current regulations, schools are required to teach wood and fabric repair techniques that are no longer performed in the industry while they must navigate the FAA bureaucracy to obtain permission to teach modern technology such as engine monitoring systems and avionics.

As he designed the new program for SUU, Britt saw an opportunity to help reshape US AMT training. He became an active member of ATEC and volunteered to chair the organization’s Legislative Committee, which includes members from AMT schools and the industry.

As part of that committee, Britt helped draft new language for 14 CFR Part 147, the regulations governing AMT education, and airman certification standards (ACS) for mechanics. The goal is to enact new regulations that will permit greater flexibility in how and what AMT schools teach, allowing them to better create the workforce the industry desperately needs to compete and grow. The final language was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which was signed into law in December 2020. The FAA is expected to update Part 147 with language from the new law this year (see “Revising Part 147: The Saga Continues,” at the end of this story).

The new AMT school complements and closely works in conjunction with SUU’s successful flight training department. (SUU Aviation)

Knowing the new regulation was coming, Britt and the SUU team designed the school’s AMT program to meet the requirements of both the current and anticipated future rules.

“While we wait for the new rules to publish, we still have to teach what’s required in the current rules,” Britt says. “We approached this progressively, covering the letter of the current rule and expanding on it with modern technology and helicopter systems that are supported in the new rules. When the rules change, there are some things we’ll be able to drop because they are either antiquated or redundant. We want to focus on advanced technology, spending more time on composites, advanced wiring and electronics, and turbine engines. These are the skills the industry is demanding in its AMTs today.”

Training AMTs for Leadership

In creating the SUU AMT AAS degree program, Britt took advantage of the university’s resources to go beyond the basics of the Part 147 mandates. Electronics courses, for instance, are taught by the SUU engineering department, providing students with the opportunity to connect with their STEM peers while sharing instructors and equipment.

The university also partnered with Southwest Technical College, a few blocks from SUU’s main campus, to share resources and equipment for classes on structures and advanced electrical wiring. Hands-on maintenance training takes place at Cedar City Regional Airport (KCDC), where under the watchful eye of instructors and licensed A&P mechanics, students work on the university’s aircraft fleet of 19 piston helicopters, 5 turbine helicopters, and 16 piston airplanes.

The program is also designed to prepare students for future advancement. “As we began developing the program, we wanted to build in options for mechanics to have upward mobility in their careers,” Britt says. “There isn’t just a deficit in mechanics. There is a very real deficit in aviation leadership as those current professionals begin to retire.

“I’ve seen it have a very negative effect on aviation operations. Operators will promote their best mechanic to director of operations, but that person often does not have the education or experience in business skills, logistics, and big-picture understanding of aviation business management to do the job effectively. Sometimes that can lead to financial failure,” he says. “Our goal was to develop pathways that not only allow mechanics to effectively maintain today’s and tomorrow’s aircraft but also to move up in their careers successfully.”

In September 2021, SUU launched a bachelor’s degree in aviation administration and leadership. Students in both flight and maintenance programs can take courses in business as well as aviation management and administration to develop their leadership skills and management knowledge.

The degree can be pursued as an extension of the AMT AAS degree or by current AMTs with an associate degree. To better support working AMTs, the bachelor’s degree program is offered online.

Working with Strategic Partners

Britt credits SUU’s success in developing and launching a unique AMT program—despite the additional complications of debuting an educational program just as COVID-19 was about to spread throughout the world—to the university’s multiple partnerships across industry and government. It worked closely with aircraft operators who sought better-trained AMTs, associations like ATEC and HAI, and government entities, including the FAA and the state of Utah.

Staffing shortages at the local Salt Lake City Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) led to oversight of the development of the new SUU program being transferred to the San Diego (California) FSDO. That FSDO had more recent experience supporting AMT program development and thus was open to working with SUU to make changes to AMT education while also remaining compliant with 14 CFR Part 147. Britt also credits that FSDO with helping SUU pivot quickly to presenting some courses online during the pandemic.

SUU also approached the state of Utah to obtain financial support for its expansion of AMT education. To attract more technical industry and skilled jobs, the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity in 2014 launched Talent Ready Utah, a workforce development program that provides state residents with exposure to careers in aerospace and defense as well as other targeted industries.

SUU was successful in securing a Learn & Work in Utah grant that covered the first semester’s tuition for 14 students. It also won a Perkins grant, a federal program that supports career and technical education, to purchase equipment and supplies as well as to support a future avionics emphasis in the degree program.

SUU also joined HAI in initiating the Utah Rotor Pathways Program (URPP)—a multilevel effort by state government, industry, and educators to develop a skilled workforce for the rotorcraft industry in Utah. In 2021, the university received a perpetual Strategic Workforce Initiative grant from the state, worth $320,000 a year, to help run the AMT AAS degree program, add a professor, and develop additional curricula. The grant also supports SUU’s work on behalf of URPP to offer college-credit courses in helicopter flight and maintenance in 18 Utah high schools, with the hopes of sparking interest in aviation careers.

SUU has been fortunate to receive a number of airframe donations, allowing the program to provide rounded instruction in helicopter maintenance. (HAI/Jen Boyer)

Today, the SUU AMT program is supported by four maintenance instructors, supplemented by two flight school instructors who also have A&P licenses. Department leaders had hoped the student population of the program would be 125 by now, but COVID and resulting housing shortages have kept that number to 70. Britt hopes to see enrollment increase by 40 to 50 students a semester in coming years until the program is fully enrolled at 250 students.

Making a Difference

Interviews with some SUU AMT students illustrate how the new program is preparing them for aviation careers.

Hands-On Learning

Josh Snyder enrolled in SUU’s fixed-wing flight-training program in 2019 after graduating from the Academy of Aviation at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. To help cover his costs, he landed a hydropress operator job at Metalcraft Technologies, just down the street from campus. A few months into flight training, Snyder decided to move his studies to the new SUU AMT program. He joined the program in January 2020 and hasn’t looked back.

“I love working on cars and my truck, doing things with my hands, and this program has been amazing,” Snyder says. “I love it, especially how hands-on it is. I talk with my friends in other A&P programs, and they’re spending far more time in lectures and supervised studying while we’re spending time in the lab, actually touching things and working with our hands. It’s also really helped me out with my job at Metalcraft, especially the precision measuring equipment, bend angles, bend radius, things like that.”

Snyder’s managers have noticed his commitment and are closely watching his progress toward his A&P certificate. He is being considered for an entry-level A&P position at SyberJet Aircraft, which, like Metalcraft Technologies, is a subsidiary of MSC Aerospace and has an operation in Cedar City.

Learning Marketable Skills

After five years serving in the US Marines as a powerplant mechanic, Joe Campanile used his veteran’s benefits to enroll in SUU’s helicopter flight-training program in 2018. As he completed the program and received his rotorcraft commercial, instrument, flight instructor, and instrument instructor ratings, SUU’s AMT program was launching. Campanile was one of the first students to enroll.

“I want to work in an area where I can use both my pilot and mechanic skills,” he explains. “I really want a routine schedule, and maintenance is more scheduled. Having both skills, I’ll be more marketable for something stable and predictable like helicopter EMS [emergency medical services], which allows me to be in one place and have a family.”

Having been in the program from the beginning, Campanile experienced the department’s growing pains, which were exacerbated by the pandemic. “The flight program had been around a long time, so it was very structured,” he says. “Going from that to a new program starting out, we just had to be a little more patient.” He adds that he’s enjoyed the small class size that allows him to work closely with instructors and classmates.

Supportive Environment

Bridget Wolf has found the SUU AMT program to be exactly what she needed. She graduated from high school in 2019 and initially enrolled in the flight-training program to be an airplane pilot. A few hours of flight time taught her that she wanted to know more about how aircraft worked.

Wolf joined SUU’s AMT program in the summer of 2021. Now in her second semester, she is happy with her decision.

“I really like it here, and I love what I’m learning,” she says. “It gives me a different point of view versus what I was seeing as a pilot. And I’m really fascinated with helicopters now. I plan on working in helicopter maintenance at least for a few years. Maybe I’ll go back to flight school. My dream job is to be a helicopter pilot.”

In addition to what she’s learning, Wolf is equally impressed by the culture at SUU. A young female in a traditionally male-dominated field, she knew she could face feeling like an outsider. That hasn’t been the case at all.

“It feels more like a family here than school,” she explains. “A lot of my fellow students are veterans. They have a lot of experience and have been out of high school longer than me. They help each other out and help me.

“We all meet for study groups. Everyone treats each other the same, even the instructors, regardless of how much aviation or even life experiences we have,” Wolf adds.

Like many other women entering aviation, Wolf has also found valuable networking and support services through Women in Aviation International (WAI). The local chapter, the SSU T-Birds, provides study groups for both flight and maintenance students.

Students in SUU’s AMT program receive instruction in modern repair techniques, including carbon-fiber repairs. (HAI/Jen Boyer)

Planning for Growth

In addition to adding the bachelor’s degree in aviation administration and leadership, SUU is working to expand its offerings for AMTs in two additional areas.

SUU’s aviation and engineering departments are working together to create an avionics and electronics emphasis for the AMT program. Expected to be launched in the spring of 2023, this emphasis will work much like the airframe and powerplant emphases, running as a two-semester cluster of courses that prepares mechanics to receive their license to maintain and repair specialized avionics and electronics systems.

“We heard from industry partners that as aviation moves toward a more digitized and electronic age, the demand for mechanics who can perform and sign off on their own avionics work grows,” Britt says. “By providing our students with a choice of emphases in their program, we help them specialize and become highly marketable.

“Our avionics emphasis is unique, as it’s tied to our engineering department. Several of the courses are advanced electrical engineering, which gives students a more solid understanding of circuitry and electrical systems,” he adds. “Teaching avionics and advanced electronics together provides a more valuable foundation for today’s advanced aviation systems.”

SUU has also begun to develop an advanced manufacturing emphasis, which will focus on composites. The school is in the process of designing the curriculum and planning for equipment acquisition, including an autoclave, to support this emphasis.

Future students in SUU’s AMT associate’s program will be able to pair any of these emphases to their airframe licenses during the 18-month program. Current A&P mechanics can also enroll for two semesters per emphasis to earn additional aviation maintenance licenses.


Revising Part 147: The Saga Continues

Originally established under the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the precursor to the FAA, 14 CFR Part 147 defines the requirements and operating rules for FAA-certificated AMT schools. In other words, it defines the skills that an A&P candidate must learn, who can provide that training, and how that training should be provided.

Last updated in 1962, these regulations continue to mandate that A&P students learn outdated technologies while others that were in their infancy or nonexistent in 1962, such as health and usage monitoring systems, are not covered. Schools must work through a cumbersome FAA approval process to modify either the curriculum or their operating procedures.

In 2009, an industry working group, the Part 147 Aviation Maintenance Technician Schools Curriculum and Operating Requirements Working Group, formally recommended broad changes to Part 147 to better align with modern technology and industry needs. In response, the FAA issued in November 2015 a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) with sweeping changes to Part 147. The industry strongly objected to the new language, arguing that the US Department of Education should oversee AMT training and that oversight by the FAA has led to excessive roadblocks to curriculum updates.

In the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, Congress mandated the FAA to release a new Part 147 by April 5, 2019. Eleven days after this deadline, the FAA released a supplemental NPRM for Part 147, which received substantial criticism from the industry. Instead of streamlining the regulations for AMT education, the supplemental NPRM doubled the size of Part 147, requiring AMT educators to submit to additional layers of regulations and approvals.

With AMT shortages reaching a critical level, the industry petitioned congressional legislators to draft new language for Part 147 that would reference the revised mechanic airman certification standards (ACS) being developed by an FAA–industry working group. That language was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed into law by President Trump in December 2020. The act called for the FAA to replace current training requirements with the new language within 90 days, a deadline that has come and gone with no action.

On Sep. 1, 2021, a bipartisan group of seven senators sent a letter to US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson saying that “it is imperative that Part 147 rulemaking remains a top priority for the FAA” and asking for immediate publication of the mechanic ACS.

The Department of Transportation regulatory agenda states that the rule was supposed to be published in November. At press time in mid-December, the industry was still anxiously awaiting action by the FAA and had reengaged with legislators on the issue.

For more on the industry’s efforts to revise Part 147, see “Is AMT Education Ready for the 21st Century?” in the 2020 Q4 issue of ROTOR, or visit the ATEC website for updates and the text of the new Part 147 and mechanic ACS.

Author

  • Jen Boyer is a 20-year journalism and public relations professional in the aviation industry, having worked for flight schools, OEMs, and operators. She holds a rotorcraft commercial instrument license with CFI and CFII ratings. Jen now runs her own public relations and communications firm.

Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer is a 20-year journalism and public relations professional in the aviation industry, having worked for flight schools, OEMs, and operators. She holds a rotorcraft commercial instrument license with CFI and CFII ratings. Jen now runs her own public relations and communications firm.