U.S. Welcomes Long-awaited Technician Training Revamp
New U.S. aviation technician training standards set to go into place later this year not only satisfy a U.S. congressional mandate, they will finally enable schools to match their skill-building curricula to current-day aviation’s mechanic workforce needs.
The FAA on March 10 released the proposed text of an interim final rule modifying FAR Part 147, the regulations that set U.S. aviation technician education school standards, including what students must be taught and the parameters for tests they must pass to become certified. The final step is publication in the Federal Register—a move the FAA says will come “this spring,” which, taken at face value, means sometime before June 22. The rule’s effective date will be 120 days after publication.
While the rule’s text is not expected to change before it becomes official via its Federal Register appearance, the agency has several important tasks remaining before the rule can be implemented. Chief among them are an advisory circular with guidance on putting the new requirements in place and finalizing proposed mechanic airman certification standards (ACS), which will replace current practical test standards and provide the framework for all Part 147 mechanic testing.
Legislation passed in December 2020 to revamp the FAA’s certification process included the requirement to end a decades-long push to update Part 147 by issuing an interim final rule by late March 2021. Unlike the aircraft, engines and components that mechanics work on every day, the current standards have changed little since 1970. The revamp effort’s most recent milestone had been an April 2019 supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking, which addressed several industry concerns with a November 2015 draft rule. Among them were expanding competency-based training standards that allow deviations from a fixed set of required hours to teach skills.
More recently, the FAA has been tackling another key issue raised by industry: developing ACS that define minimum skills and competencies mechanics need.
While stakeholders have had to wait an additional year beyond the lawmakers’ imposed deadline, they are welcoming the new standards.
“The current Part 147 rules are decades old, and they have failed to keep up with standard academic practices and assumptions,” says Joel English, executive vice president of the Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM). “They include obsolete content that we are required to teach (like dope- and-fabric airframe repair), and they use academic measurements—like required seat time for each subject—that are outdated and have no direct correlation with the skills, abilities and competencies of the mechanic.”
Kris Hammer, associate chair of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Aviation Maintenance Science Department, says some subjects in the current Part 147 requirements tend to be niche fields in modern aviation—not what most graduates are encountering in working at airlines, MROs or in commercial space. The more modern technologies in these fields “have needed to be in the curriculum for a long time, and there was just no place to put them because the FAA’s rule says we have to teach to this level, to this many hours—and that’s what we’ve done,” she adds. “Anything we wanted to do outside of that has to be a specialized course or minor, or be taught somewhere else.”
Under the old Part 147, the FAA enforced rules related to not just curriculum but also attendance, instructional practices, equipment and other quality-control measures—things already accounted for within the accreditation process, English says. Furthermore, he says, FAA guidance can often conflict with guidance provided by U.S. Education Department accreditors.
“The FAA has attempted to act as an academic oversight body, though it has no experience or vantage point from which to provide guidance to institutions of higher education,” he says.
At AIM, which runs 14 aviation maintenance technician (AMT) schools across the U.S., the individual preferences of FAA officials from local Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO) that monitor curricula have proven challenging. Local FAA officials “come to our schools and insert their own opinions on how the standardized national curriculum should be interpreted,” English says. “Oftentimes, with no other guidance than their own personal opinions and subjective preference, the FSDO personnel may require one set of changes at one campus, a totally different implementation strategy at another campus and still another derivation of the curriculum at another campus.”
English points out that sometimes these changes seem completely random or unnecessary.
“Local FSDO offices have gone as far as to tell us where we must move aircraft around in our hangar based on their opinion of which plane should go where, and how to organize our tools in a tool room,” he says. “These FSDO officials generally have no academic training or objective basis for their requirements on our schools; rather, their personal preference becomes our academic requirement—their wish has been our command.”
The new Part 147 rules will give more power to the academic specialists to determine requirements and curriculum. English says at AIM, one standardized curriculum will be taught at each campus with guidance provided by airlines, MROs and manufacturers. This, he says, will better serve students and future industry employers.
The ACS, modernized to reflect current industry technology, will also ensure that mechanics emerging from school are better prepared to fill industry needs. The ACS is made up of general subjects, such as cleaning and corrosion control, with related subtopics, such as corrosion identification and inspection. While schools will still be subject to FAA standards, the move toward teaching to the ACS versus a minimum number of seat-time hours will provide much more flexibility.
“How we get there is up to us,” says James Hall, dean of the National Center for Aviation Training at Wichita State University’s Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology. “The FAA will not have less oversight, but it’ll be a less-restrictive oversight.
“We’re all very happy that we’re no longer having seat-time requirements, because that is an antiquated way of measuring success in the classroom,” Hall adds. “Time in the seats does not guarantee that you’ve learned things. While you’re teaching to a standard like the ACS, it allows you to actually prove that your students have learned what they’re being taught.”
Embry-Riddle’s Hammer says the move away from seat time will transform the way the students can be taught. “If we can show that the FAA standards are met for a certain topic in fewer hours than is currently mandated by Part 147 in our curriculum, that gives us extra time,” she says.
While classes will still be taught in a semester-based format, students who show competency before the semester is over could be provided extra learning opportunities. “That’s where a lot of ideas come in,” she says. “Can we do short courses in something? Can we offer a different area of concentration? Can we do [general familiarization courses]? Can we do specialized training?”
Hammer points out that the Part 147 rule changes could pave the way for more use of newer technologies for instruction, such as augmented and virtual reality (VR). Equally important is that it will help streamline training where possible, while still ensuring FAA standards are followed.
Training mechanics to be qualified quickly and effectively is seen as key to meeting future demand, which is expected to be strong as the industry shifts from recovery to growth mode in the coming years.
“With the pilot and mechanic shortage up and coming, we have to figure out how to train technicians and pilots more efficiently,” Hammer says. “We’re not going to be able to get rid of hands-on entirely, and we can’t make everything VR, but for theory, component location and things like that, computer-based stuff works well.”
Hall says more curriculum flexibility will also give AMT schools better opportunity to teach students about emerging technologies. “What is going to be helpful more than anything is that schools can tailor toward industry needs more. So if you’re in a market that serves things like UAS or VTOL, you can tailor your curriculum to [emphasize] those areas as opposed to the past, where you were restricted to what programs you could teach,” he says.
The Part 147 changes will also reduce restrictions on where students can learn—a logical move after the world has transitioned to more flexible modes of working and learning during the pandemic.
“One of the things that’s going to be a good outcome of this is that, since we can now have satellite locations, we will be able to set up schools inside of high schools and MROs,” Hall says. “Really, the sky’s the limit of what we can do. It really is going to change the entire landscape of AMT training.”