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Aviation Maintenance Technology Program

Jun 21, 2017 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Taking Flight

July 2017
Story by Jordan Venema
Photos courtesy of SJVC Aviation Maintenance Technology

This year marks the 40th anniversary of San Joaquin Valley College, a local staple of vocational education. The college has offered a number of programs, but its aviation maintenance technology program has been longstanding at 25 years, and though it has nothing to do with actual flight instruction, the program is only beginning to take flight.

Instructor Lionel Smith explains the purpose of the aviation maintenance technology program is to “meet all the requirements to take the FAA exams for Airframe and Powerplant license. That will allow you to work on anything that flies.” And after 1,900 hours of training, students practically learn to turn an engine inside out, and almost everything between wingtips. 

What’s interesting about airplane mechanics is that virtually every automotive mechanic also knows how to drive a car, but that’s not necessarily the case for mechanics that work on planes. 

“A lot of people here like just the mechanical side of things,” says Smith.  

In the United States, cars are almost as common as people, and with so many vehicles on the streets, it might be surprising to learn that automotive maintenance has become such a saturated field that it’s difficult to find work. That’s not the case with aviation maintenance, where the industry is increasing faster than they can hire, and few people entering into the field.

In fact, Smith says that if his current 80 students had their licenses today, he’d be able to find a job for every single one.

“Airlines and flying services are carrying more and more, and all the baby boomers are starting to retire,” suggests Smith. 

Furthermore, most high schools offer vocational classes that teach the fundamentals of car maintenance, though not for airborne engines. 

“Well, not yet,” concedes Smith, “but there is talk of some schools starting to go that way.” 

While comparing the engine of an airplane and a car might be like comparing apples and oranges, Smith believes there’s slightly more pressure when it comes to working on planes. 

Say you’re driving your car and something goes wrong with the engine, smoke begins pouring from under the hood, the engine spurts, the car comes to a stop. But say this happened while in a plane? What would you do? There’s no side of the road.

“That’s what we tell our students. That’s why they have to be very methodical and very focused on the job, because we can’t just pull over.” 

Does that mean there’s more stress, or maybe more pride for aviation mechanics?

“I think there’s a lot more pride,” says Smith. “At least once they’ve got the hang of it, because a lot of lives are at stake.”

Furthermore, Smith says there’s something new every day in the field of aviation maintenance, since it incorporates everything from spaceships to gliders. As technology advances, aviation includes more components and computers, “but we still teach wood and fabric,” says Smith. 

The program’s courses are held at Fresno’s Yosemite Airport, Monday through Thursday from 7am to 3:40pm, with general education classes on Friday between 7am and noon.

“So at the end of the 16 months they have an associate in science degree, as well,” explains Smith. 

New classes start every two months, and while this program requires 1,900 hours of training within its 16-month span, Smith explains that training under an apprenticeship would require more than 3,000 hours. 

The programs are opening students up to careers in commercial, private or military aviation. 

“We have five or six employers who come to our college on a routine basis,” says Smith. “Some of our students end up working out at NAS Lemoore. Some work for the spaceship company, Virgin Galactic, that will carry civilians into outer space.” 

For graduates of the aviation maintenance technology program, then, the sky is really the limit, from the low-altitude heights of small gliders to beyond our atmosphere with the next generation of space exploration.

Aviation Maintenance Technology Program

San Joaquin Valley College • • (866) 544-7898

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