State Technical College of Missouri (STCM) was just ranked third on Forbes’ list of Top Two-Year Trade Schools. What do you think made your school stand out so much—particularly in terms of the Aviation Maintenance program?
It was started back in 1963 with the local high school and it just kept morphing. We had 1,500 students this fall, and we’ve got more than 30 different programs. We have a very diverse bunch of classes that they can take and get their associate degree while they’re here. Our programs don’t stay here unless there’s a market for the people when they leave. They have to be employable when they come out of here, and that’s always been our big thing—if you come here for two years, you can make a living when you graduate.
We have very good job placement. When students graduate, they all have jobs waiting on them. We have several different types of airplanes and helicopters and we try to emphasize a lot of hands-on. We actually go farther than what the FAA requires. For example, on the reciprocating engines, we tear the engines down and inspect everything, measure and put them back together—it’s pretty in-depth. I do a lot of sheet metal with them where we actually fabricate pieces instead of just doing riveting like a lot of schools do. We actually show them how to fabricate parts from scratch.
You were a graduate of STCM’s Aviation Maintenance program yourself. Could you tell me a bit about that experience and how you got interested in aviation maintenance?
The interest started with my dad. He was in the Navy in 1943. He flew in PBY Catalina seaplanes, so when I was growing up he had all these books from the Navy and picture books from Pearl Harbor. I was always thrilled with it and built models when I was a kid. When I got older, I actually started out in the National Guard in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1984. I got in the Guard and went to the Army helicopter training at Fort Rucker, Alabama for the UH-18 Huey helicopter.
Then after about three years with the Guard, I wanted a little bit more than they offered. I decided to get into aviation as my profession, so I came here to get my A&P license. I started here in 1986 and graduated in 1988. I was in the first class to graduate out of the program’s Linn Airport hangar. The program started in 1970, but we moved to the new campus [at the airport] in 1987.
What was next for you after graduating from STCM?
I went about 30 miles down the road here to Vichy, Missouri. There was an operator called Baron Aviation and they operated Cessna Caravans for Federal Express. [At that time] we still had a Douglas DC-3 run from Springfield, Missouri to Memphis, Tennessee every night. So we had a DC-3 on that run and we had three of them operable. I worked on DC-3s and copiloted them a little bit just to ferry them back for maintenance. The Cessna Caravan was the latest thing rolling off the assembly line up in Wichita, so we would go pick up the airplanes brand new from Cessna, put them into service and bring them in for 100-hour inspections at Vichy. They also had some warbirds that I liked to work on, so I started getting into restoring old warbird airplanes.
While working there, I got hooked up with a doctor who was trying to get one of the Lockheed P-38s that was buried in the ice cap in Greenland. They landed in 1942—there were six P-38s and two Boeing B-17 bombers that all landed as a group. They got lost in the bad weather and landed there because they were short on fuel. They called that the “Lost Squadron.” So they abandoned the planes there in 1942 and then in the 80s and 90s these planes got to be worth some money, so people started looking for them again. They located the aircraft, but they had been up there for 50 years and were covered in 268 ft. of snow and ice. They finally succeeded in getting a P-38 out in 1992. The owner that paid for it was in Middlesboro, Kentucky, so they took the plane there and we restored it. I got on that project because I was a pretty good sheet metal man from building these RV-4 and RV-6 kit planes that come out of Oregon.
I was on that project for about a year and it got tied up with the lawyers in terms of who actually owned [the aircraft] and who was supposed to pay for it, and while they were deliberating in court, I had the opportunity to go to Nigeria to build RV-6 kit planes. I went over to Nigeria for two and a half years and helped them set up the first factory on the African continent that built airplanes. We built 60 airplanes for their Air Force and about 10 extra ones that were for spare parts.
After that I was a civilian contractor with L3 and I went to Afghanistan for a year and Iraq for three years to work on army helicopters. In 2012 I came back home and STCM needed an instructor. Basically, they got me to come up and talk to students and they offered me a job. I’ve been here going on six years now.
What has been the biggest change from when you were going to school compared to STCM’s Aviation Maintenance program now?
We put more emphasis now on the students getting out of here and taking a job with corporate aviation or an airline because that’s where the money is. When I came through here, they didn’t really push that at all. It was a different job market in the mid-80s. Aviation was in a big slump and Cessna quit building airplanes right about then. It was not that easy to find a job, where now in the market everybody is screaming for people, so these guys can go anywhere they want to and get hired.
We have several companies that are on our advisory council, so we have a couple of meetings each year. They come in here and tell us what their wants and desires are—what kind of people they’re looking for. I was really surprised the last two years at how many mechanics they’re looking for. This last year, I’ve had more people contact me than I did the other five years put together. Everybody is looking, and I guess more and more people are finding out that we’re actually here. It’s surprising—this school is in a small town. There’s no big city. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere.
Demand for mechanics only keeps growing. What do you think is the most important factor for attracting new people to the industry?
Pay is a big thing. Companies were historically kind of poor at the starting wage, but they’re getting so desperate they’re finally coming around and offering people something decent to begin with. A company that hires a lot of our graduates just recently gave everyone a $4 an hour pay raise because they’re trying to keep people from going to other places. They’re getting so desperate everywhere that they’re finally kicking in the money that they should’ve to get these people and to keep them.
A lot of prospective students don’t know anything about aircraft. They just think this is what they want to do, so you have to sell them on it, too. You have to explain to them what’s out there—that if you work 7-10 years with any of these airlines you’ll be making more than $100,000 a year. The guys coming out of here now—they’re not even trying if they don’t make at least $50,000 a year straight out of here. You might have to work some overtime or a night shift, but another thing a lot of these companies are doing is four-day work weeks or—if you work the weekends—most of them are doing three 12-hour days.
Most of the companies are really good with benefits. The downside is that [graduates] will probably have to move away from home, so that is a consideration, and we tell them that right up front. That if you really want to do well in this, you might have to move to get a promotion.