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Flying field: Aviation maintenance technology offers high opportunity

by CHERYL SCHWEIZER
Staff Writer | January 24, 2022 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — Christine Kelly said she was looking for training opportunities when she found some online information about the aviation maintenance technology program at Big Bend Community College.

Kelly, from Bellevue, said she knew she wanted a job where she could work with her hands. But there didn’t seem to be as many opportunities for that kind of training in Bellevue. She started looking at aviation maintenance programs around the state, and BBCC had something many of the others lacked.

“Big Bend had dorms,” she said.

She didn’t know anything about aviation or aircraft maintenance, she said. She had never heard of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But when she graduated from BBCC, she had a job waiting for her and got so interested in aviation she enrolled in BBCC’s pilot training program.

“Flying is the fun part,” Kelly said.

Instructor Chris Dinges said there’s an old saying in aviation: every pilot should want to be a mechanic, and every mechanic should want to be a pilot.

The aviation maintenance technology (AMT) program attracts students from throughout the state. Corey Tyron commutes to class from Tri-Cities.

“Every day,” he said.

He heard about the AMT program from his uncle, a 1990s graduate, and it’s the closest program available to Tri-Cities. It’s been worth the drive, he said.

Wednesday afternoon he was writing down the specs of the connecting rods for a piston aircraft engine, trying to get the measurements down to a 10,000th of an inch, per the FAA guidelines.

“It’s not difficult, but it is,” he said.

Precision is important in aviation – after all, if there’s a mechanical problem in flight, a pilot can’t just pull over to the side of the road.

Michael Veenendaal and Caleb McGrady were giving a single-engine aircraft the equivalent of a 100-hour inspection. The wing was the first focus.

Maintenance technicians examine every inch, and it’s all documented. The AMT students compared their findings to the existing record, as would be the case in an actual inspection.

“If you change a light bulb, you have to document it,” McGrady said.

McGrady transferred to BBCC from a training program in Spokane, and said he’s been impressed. Big Bend provides students with tools, something the previous program didn’t.

“I wish I’d started here,” he said.

Zachary Acfalle already has a job, working at the Boeing facility at the Grant County International Airport. He works his classes around the job.

His employer is paying for him to go to school, he said. In fact, he took advantage of an opportunity from Boeing to transfer to the company’s Moses Lake facility. For him it was a good decision.

“It’s a great school,” he said.

“As long as you’re willing to work, they’ll teach you what you need to know,” Kelly said.

Classes are small, instructors take time to work with students one-on-one and in small groups, Acfalle said. Instructors work to accommodate students who are working as well as going to school.

“That’s what makes it work for me,” Acfalle said.

Kelly had a job before she graduated, and Acfalle’s employers are paying expenses. General AMT program instructor Keith Starcher said those are indications of the current demand in the field.

“You have multiple job offers on the way out (after graduation),” Starcher said.

He’s been the general instructor and AMT program coordinator for two years, but he’s been working in the field since 1981. A lot of experienced AMTs like him are retiring, he said, and there aren’t enough replacements yet.

“Right now, it’s a strong (job) market,” Starcher said.

Dinges said the AMT program provides certification in airframes and power plants (engines) for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The AMT training includes all engines, from piston-driven to turbines, as well as helicopters.

“There’s really no limit to what we can work on. We can work on anything that flies,” Tyron said.

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald

Corey Tyron writes down the specs for an aircraft engine connecting rod during aviation maintenance technology class at Big Bend Community College on Wednesday.

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald

Big Bend Community College aviation maintenance technology students Michael Veenendaal (left) and Caleb McGrady (right) remove inspection panels from an aircraft wing during a Wednesday class.

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald

Alexander Ignacio-Gamez (left) and Caleb McGrady (right) remove inspection panels from the underside of an aircraft on Wednesday, during class in the Big Bend Community College aviation maintenance technology program.

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