We’ve all been there. You’re at a junction point in your life, maybe after graduating from high school or college, or after a milestone birthday, where you need to either change a career or start one. In the pages of this training and career-focused issue of FAA Safety Briefing, we tend to focus on the pilot centric world. However, aviation is filled with opportunities that don’t involve actually piloting an aircraft. We’ve looked at a few of these career options in the past — see p. 20 of our September/October 2016 issue, “The Airway Less Travelled.” (PDF download) Here are a few more options to consider should you desire a non-flying career in aviation.
Keep ’em Flying, Safely
Aircraft are fickle beasts. Their care and feeding is no easy task because they are fundamentally a system of systems. Aviation Maintenance Technicians (AMTs) are required to understand how to repair and keep these systems in good working order. While there are some similarities with the work of automotive technicians, the stakes in the aviation world are much higher since you can’t just pull over and wait for the tow truck.
“You need to have a love for aircraft,” explains Mike Dunkley, the 2021 National Aviation Technician of the Year. “It’s not just doing the work of a mechanic — you can do that on a car. I know there’s a shortage of aviation mechanics in the U.S. today, so we need them, but we need people with a love of aircraft too.”
Dunkley emphasizes the need to work with pilots to determine the root cause of maintenance issues due to their highly integrated systems. “I might have a pilot who says, ‘I have this problem,’ and then digging deeper I discover that there’s an associated problem which caused that problem, and that wasn’t the original problem anyway.” According to Dunkley, the bottom line is to get the full story.
Dunkley has another piece of advice for those currently in or getting into the field of aviation maintenance. “Check it, and check it again. After completing a job, put your inspector’s hat on, and look at what you just did,” says Dunkley. Ask yourself — “Did I perform the work correctly and in accordance with the appropriate airworthiness standards and maintenance manuals? Yes, it may take a little longer, but you’re going to be satisfied with the work, and it’s going to be a safe product by the time you release that airplane back into flying status again,” he explains.
For more information on becoming an AMT, visit faa.gov/mechanics/become.
Command the Sky
“I had never even considered a job as an air traffic controller,” says Sarah Patten, Air Traffic Control Specialist at the FAA’s Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON). Patten started her aviation career as a pilot and flight instructor, but in 2008 she was convinced to apply for an FAA job as an air traffic controller (ATC). “I’m so glad I took a chance and applied,” Patten explains. “The job has been so interesting, and I’ve had some incredible opportunities along the way.”
Potomac TRACON handles air traffic control services for the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. and Richmond-Charlottesville, Virginia regions. “The increased security of the airspace can be a bit intimidating to pilots, but once you know how it works, it’s really not that scary,” says Patten. She uses her pilot and instructor skills to help fellow pilots navigate that complex and restricted airspace. She also participates in Potomac TRACON’s Operation Raincheck (when available), which allows pilots to learn how ATC works from the controller’s side.
If you are interested in becoming an Air Traffic Control Specialist, visit faa.gov/jobs/career_fields/aviation_careers.
And Now for Something Completely Different
Well, not exactly, but here’s something far less defined than the previous entries. With change comes opportunity and right now there’s a lot of change in aviation. This fact is especially applicable to the introduction of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM). There’s a tremendous fervor around how UAS can be used to revolutionize aviation. But the key to that revolution is UTM — how to safely get those new operators into the National Airspace System (NAS). So if you like solving complex problems, then UTM might be for you.
“I used to be an air traffic controller at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and by early 2017, I was hearing a lot about drones as the FAA rolled out the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC),” says FAA UTM Implementation Program Manager Peter Sachs. “We got several requests at SFO from people wanting to fly drones near the airport, but we didn’t have good tools at the time, other than our own judgment, to decide what was safe. That’s when I learned about the UTM concept. I realized I could contribute to it since I had a lot of background knowledge, not just from working air traffic, but also from being a flight instructor, and understanding some of the FAA’s systems like the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) radar and the electronic flight strip prototypes.”
UTM is full of unsolved problems, and I’ve come to relish working in a space where we don’t have all the answers yet, let alone how to make them a reality,” says Sachs. “The work we’re doing now, whether technical or regulatory, will shape future systems in 10, 20, even 30 years’ time, and probably in ways we can’t quite fathom. That makes it a really fun set of challenges for me.”
When asked what advice he would have for someone interested in UTM, Sachs explains that much of what you need to know can be learned on the job. “This is an emerging and quickly growing field, so if you don’t know the answer, it’s possible that no one else does either. That’s an opportunity for you to find a new approach.” Sachs continues, “I went to school for sociology and journalism and took flying lessons in my free time. Everything else, including everything I do that counts as — ‘systems engineering,’ are skills I picked up along the way. You also don’t need to be a software engineer or a coder, although learning how to talk to those teams is certainly helpful,” Sachs explains. He believes the most essential qualification is a desire to keep learning, and lots of curiosity.
As you can see, there are several career paths that exist beyond the bounds of the flight deck. You have options that let you join the aviation world with or without a pilot certificate — so take a look!
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.