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When one thinks of aviation, often the first occupation which comes to mind is that of a pilot. Important as the role of a pilot is to ensuring the aircraft completes its flight in a safe and efficient manner, there are also a number of unsung heroes making perhaps an equal contribution to the successful operation of the plane, that of aviation technicians. During the course of this blog, we'll trace the development of aviation technical schools from the early days to the modern facilities of today.

Not long after the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903, a man named Charles Taylor worked in a bicycle shop in Dayton (he worked on the Wright brother's bicycles) took an interest in aviation and built the first aircraft engine. What is miraculous about Taylor's effort is that he had no manual nor instructions to follow during the course of engine construction, being both self-taught and self-directed. Though others were to follow Taylor's example, he became the world's first aviation maintenance technician. While there were no immediate requirements or regulations, technicians had to licensed by 1909 with instructional standards established in 1919. Prior to the 1920's there were no regulations for aviation maintenance, which offered little or no guidance on how to safely conduct repairs. Adding to the confusion, aviation technicians were not required to catalog the maintenance they were performing. Technician training was often delegated to either the aircraft owner or the airlines who hired them. While manuals were developed as a result of the Air Commerce Act of 1925, which mandated that technicians document their repairs, both airlines and aircraft manufacturers were slow to implement them. Finally, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) implemented their own licensing standards, but did not enforce them.

The first official aviation technology school, the German Institute for Experimental Aviation and the Scientific Society of Instruments for Aviation were founded in 1912 in Berlin. Two years later the first American college level aeronautics program was established at the University of Michigan. While initially taught as a technical program, it stirred much interest and led to the first four-year program established at the University of Michigan along with a department of aeronautical engineering in 1916. This program formed a pattern of aviation tech schools over the next thirty years, in which aviation technical programs were based at a number of universities, either as stand alone programs, or part of an aeronautical aviation degree program. In 1925, the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aeronautics formally opened at New York University. The Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics was established in June 1926 for the purposes of aeronautical education and research, the development of commercial aircraft and aircraft equipment, as well as the application of aircraft to a variety of economic and social activities. The Guggenheim Fund also made gifts to the University of Michigan, Stanford University, MIT and the California Institute of Technology. In 1939, the MIT aeronautical program became a distinct department within the university. Another important institution of aviation was formed in 1925 with the founding of the Embry-Riddle Company at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio. Established by John Paul Riddle and T. Higbee Embry, they witnessed an expansion of aviation interest after World War I and believed aviation could be a profitable industry, especially in the area of pilot training. Shortly after forming the company, Embry and Riddle then opened the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation. Though the demand for pilot training decreased during the 1930's, due largely to the depression, training increased during World War II, training some 25,000 pilots and technicians by the end of the conflict. Embry-Riddle also trained aircraft technicians for the USAF during the Korean War, becoming a full fledged university in the late 1960's.

During the 1940's a number of universities began to develop four-year, non-engineering degree programs in air transport. The emphasis of these programs was to modify existing aircraft to make them more practical to commercial needs, such as cargo or passenger flight. Both flight schools and university sponsored aviation technology programs were based at local airports in order to offer the students first hand experience in aircraft maintenance and operations. By the early 1950's, several universities had segregated their aircraft operations programs into their overall business management programs, with flight and maintenance programs organized into a division of technical studies. Purdue University was one of the first schools to reorganize in this manner as the Department Of Aviation Technology, offering a two-year program in Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) in 1954. The emphasis of the AMT program was on the Civil Aeronautics Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic certification. Although located on the main university campus, the program was not considered a part of the university. Technical subjects were taught as special courses with aviation students charged extra fees. Aviation Technology courses began to be offered at the secondary education level in the late 1950's. One such example is Aviation High School in New York City. Aviation High School is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the training of Aircraft Maintenance Technicians (AMTs). Students who graduate from the school's technical programs are allowed to take their FAA certification examinations without additional training. The school's main campus was completed in 1958 and occupies an entire city block at the intersection of 36th Street and Queens Boulevard. The campus is composed of seven stories and contains academic classrooms, shop classrooms and special aviation labs, as well as a hangar where seniors take a capstone course, in which they solve a variety of aviation maintenance problems. A number of instructional aircraft were donated by the US military. In October 2000, the high school opened an extension campus at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

By the early 1960's aerospace engineering was separated into two components, science, which dealt with aircraft theory and design, while the vocational training would be delegated to outside institutes, emphasizing the technical aspects of a plane. However, later in the decade market trends began to work against this concept, with aircraft companies preferring aeronautical engineering graduates, who had hands-on training being able to analyze both the theoretical and technical aspects of a plane. While this solved an economic problem in the short run, globalization produced another one. It wasn't long before countries such as China and India began to devote greater resources toward the training of aerospace engineers, as well as highly skilled technicians. Also, due to financial considerations, many universities in the United States began to reduce the lab hours required of graduating engineers from 173 credit hours in the early 1960s to 128 credit hours by the 1990's, producing engineers with a lot of theory, but relatively little practice. Forced to become more competitive due to global pressures, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology formulated new standards for engineering and engineering technology programs. These standards, promulgated in the late 1990's, were adopted by both the aviation and academic communities by 2001, and are in use today. They have made our aviation industry more tech oriented over the last twenty years, but much still needs to be done.

Perhaps the best solution to support aviation maintenance training from an organizational standpoint is to develop a three-pronged approach to AMT training. One approach would have aviation maintenance training conducted at major universities, as during the 1930's to the 1950's. Such facilities would offer the advantage of parallel training for technicians and engineers, ensuring aerospace engineers have adequate vocational training, in addition to a greater selection of courses, as well as the opportunity for a four-year degree. Private institutes have more flexibility in scheduling of courses and are more actively seeking out qualified students. While public institutes don't emphasize recruiting as much as the private ones, they have the same advantages of schedule flexibility and no requirement for academic core courses, as with a four-year degree. Another concept, which began in the 1970's, is technical aviation training conducted at a local community college, alongside other technical courses. Aviation technology training is conducted by instructors at the college and may be funded by community college district, local, state and federal grants, which allow a flexible funding formula for such institutions. The Northland Career Center in the Kansas City, Missouri metropolitan area is one such example. Established in 1980, the Northland Center offers twelve secondary daytime programs to students in the northland part of Kansas City. The Northland Career Center offers both dual and articulated college credits. Although a separate institution from the community college district, under the dual credit concept, students who receive credits at Northland are automatically able to transfer their credits to any one of the community colleges immediately upon completion. Under the articulated credit concept, credits earned at NCC are transferred after completing fifteen credit hours at their respective community college. Once the student has completed their coursework, they have up to two years to apply their credit to the community college, which NCC holds the credit in escrow until the student completes their associate degree or other required courses. The Northland Career Center offers technical courses for both high school students, as well as the adult community. The current Northland Center has attracted a large number of students, and has outgrown existing space without room for expansion. Though it is often difficult to put funding packages together for career facilities, Governor Parson of Missouri has emphasized both workforce development and infrastructure over the past two years, which offers hope for a new Northland Center.

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