A&P mechanics find new leadership opportunities

 - September 20, 2006, 12:34 PM

Running a flight department has historically been considered a job for a pilot, but the industry is recognizing that maintenance technicians can bring a different sensibility to the position.

In fact, when Len Curreri retired from his position as managing director and chief pilot for singer Jimmy Buffett’s Air Margaritaville, he chose a maintenance technician to replace him. Curreri told AIN, “I didn’t pick out an individual in the shop and decide he would one day become a flight department manager. It was simply about giving mechanics the necessary tools to build a better career for themselves down the road.”

He added, “If you want a shining example of an exceptional candidate to run a flight department, it’s Steve Tuma. He served as my director of maintenance at Air Margaritaville and moved into the managing director spot when I retired. Steve has been associated with the department for more than 14 years; his work ethic and professionalism are beyond reproach. Bottom line: if Steve did not hold an A&P or IA, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. He was the right man for the job.”

Curreri said it shouldn’t be a big stretch of the imagination to put a mechanic in charge of a flight department. “Good management practices dictate you fortify individuals who show an interest and give them the tools they need to excel in the field, whether it’s maintenance or management.

“When a position like flight department manager opens up, you choose someone based upon what they have to offer, which is a blend of the right background, attitude and chemistry. How a person fits in the department is an important issue.”

However, not everyone agrees. In fact, the subject of maintenance technicians stepping into the role of flight department manager (FDM) touched off a firestorm in one department. One chief pilot took exception to the idea of a maintenance technician being an FDM on the grounds that an A&P wouldn’t have the expertise necessary to understand flight operations.

That perspective might be shaped by the fact that flight department managers have typically been pilots who filled the dual roles of FDM and chief pilot. However, the position of flight department manager is commonly understood to be administrative; it requires a strong understanding of aircraft operation but not necessarily the skill to fly an airplane.

FDMs deal with administrative issues such as budgets, acquisitions, personnel and scheduling. Dispatching an aircraft is always going to require that the pilot-in-command makes the go/no-go decision. It is common for an FDM to have a chief of maintenance and a chief pilot reporting to him.
Academia has long recognized the importance of education in preparing maintenance technicians for leadership responsibilities. For more than 20 years the University Aviation Association (UAA) and Council on Aviation Accreditation have been instrumental in developing and promoting two- and four-year degree programs for maintenance technicians. Dr. Tom Carney, professor and head of the department of aviation technology at Purdue University, is a long-time member of UAA and chairman of NBAA’s certified aviation manager governing board.

Carney said, “We offer our A&P students a comprehensive program. If they go through the entire program they will leave here with their A&P mechanic certificates, an associate of science in aeronautical technology and a B.S. in technology. Our curriculum meets or exceeds every FAR 147 requirement and goes well beyond in that our students are educated to the point that they have the knowledge and skills to talk to both the aircraft operator and engineers.”

Carney said the Purdue program attracts students who have the desire, interest and capability to be leaders as maintenance technologists rather than just technicians. “We don’t just get kids from high school,” he said. “Some of our students came to Purdue to study engineering and when they got in the curriculum they found they wanted a more ‘hands-on’ career so they transferred to our program.”

That’s not to say a maintenance professional currently in the industry can’t be successful without a four-year degree. Bill Mermelstein, vice president of propulsion for Adam Aircraft Industries, looks at the role of FDM pragmatically. “The most obvious qualification a mechanic with maintenance management experience has is an intimate knowledge of flight department cash flow. Believe me, nobody knows better how the dollars flow, where to save money and how to keep aircraft in the air,” he said.

Mermelstein emphasized that the significant cost drivers with an aircraft relate to maintenance, giving the director of maintenance a strong background for managing the flight department. “I’m also a pilot, but I present myself as a mechanic first,” he said. “They are two very different types of job. Pilots are by nature task-oriented; they have to be to get the job done.

“Mechanics, on the other hand, are long-term-goal oriented. We tend to see and appreciate the big picture. That’s not to say anything negative about the role of the pilot, but the mechanic has to know what parts cost, how long maintenance takes and how to correct issues so they don’t reoccur.”

Shawn Vick, president of Tempe, Ariz.-based Landmark Aviation, concurred with Mermelstein. “It doesn’t make sense to think that mechanics are somehow less qualified to be an FDM,” he said. “Successful managers are usually gifted planners who are self reliant in managing the various resources needed to execute the operating plan of the business.

“Maintenance technicians are, by their nature, troubleshooters, problem solvers and consensus builders. They need to understand what makes the machine work and they apply that same need-to-know to budgets, organizational structure and the requirements of their customers. Good planners make good managers, and that is as true for maintenance professionals as it is for flight professionals.

“Pilots deal with finite projects whereas mechanics deal with open-ended situations. Maintenance personnel routinely have to manage long-term projects with large budgets,” said Tom Prevost, vice president of aviation for Cigna of Windsor Locks, Conn.

Prevost started his career as a mechanic in 1984, moved into the FDM spot in 1992 and eventually was promoted to v-p of aviation. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting pilots don’t make good FDMs, but I do think it is important to understand that maintenance personnel shouldn’t be excluded simply because they can’t fly an airplane. This is an administrative position that requires a lot of planning, budgeting and personnel skills, all of which are critical components to managing a maintenance operation.”

“I was practically born on a hangar floor,” said Jim Bynum, director of aviation for Nashville, Tenn.-based Gaylord Entertainment. The company is in the hotel and convention business and owns the Grand Ole Opry. “My dad received the Charles Taylor Award in 1996, marking 50 years as an aviation maintenance professional. I was raised in aviation and started sweeping hangar floors when I was in the third grade.”

The Experience of a Lifetime

Bynum, an A&P and IA, recalled, “Early in my career I worked for Brock and Blevins Construction maintaining an MU-2 and two Cessna 411s. My father was doing maintenance for Provident Life Insurance in the same hangar,” he said. “Blevins was flying 100 hours a month, and I was their only mechanic. I was about 25 at the time and I was working day and night to keep those aircraft flying; it was brutal. And there was my father watching me get frustrated and he would say, ‘Don’t you dare quit. You’re getting the experience of a lifetime.’”

Bynum said, “My father was absolutely right; the experience I got was immeasurable. I’ve thought a lot about how I got this position and it occurred to me that the pilot’s job is to fly the airplane, but I was always in the hangar; when the phone rang I was the only one around to answer it. It didn’t matter what the problems were; I had to solve them on a day-to-day basis. It taught me every aspect of how a flight department operates.

“I’ve never understood how anyone could believe that a maintenance technician is somehow less qualified to be an FDM,” Bynum said. “I put a lot of value on participating in this industry and strongly believe we need to share our knowledge so everyone benefits. We participate in OEM programs, serve on advisory boards, work closely with the FAA to share our collective knowledge and upgrade our skills and knowledge through continuing education. Aircraft maintenance today is a high-tech professional career.”

Tim Alexander, manager of technical services for Detroit-based Masco, is on NBAA’s certified aviation manager (CAM) governing board. “I’ve seen the job description for an FDM vary widely among companies,” he said. “In one flight department it’s a pilot; in another a mechanic. Some organizations have a part-time FDM and others have someone who doesn’t even have an aviation background but there is one thing common among them all: management skills.”

Alexander explained that NBAA’s certified aviation manager program is designed to level the playing field for all aviation professionals. “The purpose of [the program] is to give credit for a person’s experience, education and training. It has a time-in-service requirement that recognizes the importance of being in the industry with hands-on experience but beyond that it brings together such things as education, professional development program courses offered by NBAA, professional training and so on. That experience earns points. A candidate needs a minimum of 100 points to take the test.”

According to Alexander, the written test covers business management, leadership, operations, personnel, technical issues and facilities. Candidates are expected to have earned the necessary points by taking courses and building experience covering those areas.

To date, 62 people have completed the CAM program. According to Jay Evans, NBAA’s director of operations, at least nine of them have maintenance backgrounds.

Evans said the test looks for broad knowledge of the industry ranging from legal issues to communications. It is open to anyone in aviation, including pilots, mechanics, schedulers and dispatchers–anyone who has accrued the knowledge, skills, education and training and gains the points can take the test, he said.

Prevost said his chief pilot and one of the captains are already certified aviation managers and both the company’s manager of safety and chief of maintenance are in the process of taking courses to become certified.

“The other issue is you need exposure,” Prevost explained. “You have to work yourself into a position where the company’s execs see you. Greet them at the airplane when they leave and return. Get involved in company committees, meetings and other activities. The simple truth is hermits don’t rise to FDM positions,” he concluded.