Today’s airplanes are highly complex machines with parts that must function within extreme tolerances for them to operate safely. To keep aircraft in peak operating condition, aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians perform scheduled maintenance, make repairs, and complete inspections required by the FAA.
Many aircraft mechanics specialize in preventive maintenance. They inspect aircraft engines, landing gear, instruments, pressurized sections, accessories—brakes, valves, pumps, and air-conditioning systems, for example—and other parts of the aircraft, and do the necessary maintenance and replacement of parts. They also keep records related to the maintenance performed on the aircraft. Mechanics and technicians conduct inspections following a schedule based on the number of hours the aircraft has flown, calendar days since the last inspection, cycles of operation, or a combination of these factors. In large, sophisticated planes equipped with aircraft monitoring systems, mechanics can gather valuable diagnostic information from electronic boxes and consoles that monitor the aircraft's basic operations. In planes of all sorts, aircraft mechanics examine engines by working through specially designed openings while standing on ladders or scaffolds or by using hoists or lifts to remove the entire engine from the craft. After taking an engine apart, mechanics use precision instruments to measure parts for wear and use x-ray and magnetic inspection equipment to check for invisible cracks. They repair or replace worn or defective parts. Mechanics also may repair sheet metal or composite surfaces; measure the tension of control cables; and check for corrosion, distortion, and cracks in the fuselage, wings, and tail. After completing all repairs, they must test the equipment to ensure that it works properly.
Other mechanics specialize in repair work rather than inspection. They find and fix problems that pilots describe. For example, during a preflight check, a pilot may discover that the aircraft's fuel gauge does not work. To solve the problem, mechanics may troubleshoot the electrical system, using electrical test equipment to make sure that no wires are broken or shorted out, and replace any defective electrical or electronic components. Mechanics work as fast as safety permits so that the aircraft can be put back into service quickly.
Some mechanics work on one or many different types of aircraft, such as jets, propeller-driven airplanes, and helicopters. Others specialize in one section of a particular type of aircraft, such as the engine, hydraulics, or electrical system. In small, independent repair shops, mechanics usually inspect and repair many different types of aircraft.
Airframe mechanics are authorized to work on any part of the aircraft except the instruments, power plants, and propellers. Powerplant mechanics are authorized to work on engines and do limited work on propellers. Combination airframe-and-powerplant mechanics—called A&P mechanics—work on all parts of the plane except the instruments. Most mechanics working on civilian aircraft today are A&P mechanics.
Avionics systems—components used for aircraft navigation and radio communications, weather radar systems, and other instruments and computers that control flight, engine, and other primary functions—are now an integral part of aircraft design and have vastly increased aircraft capability. Avionics technicians repair and maintain these systems. Because of the increasing use of technology, more time is spent repairing electronic systems, such as computerized controls. Technicians also may be required to analyze and develop solutions to complex electronic problems.
Aircraft mechanics and service technicians held about 130,100 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of aircraft mechanics and service technicians were as follows:
- Support activities for air transportation - 29%
- Scheduled air transportation - 20%
- Aerospace product and parts manufacturing - 13%
- Federal government, excluding postal service - 12%
- Nonscheduled air transportation - 5%
Avionics technicians held about 21,200 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of avionics technicians were as follows:
- Aerospace product and parts manufacturing - 37%
- Support activities for air transportation - 29%
- Federal government - 8%
- Professional, scientific, and technical services - 5%
Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians work in hangars, in repair stations, or on airfields. They must meet strict deadlines while following safety standards.
Most of these mechanics and technicians work near major airports. They may work outside on the airfield, or in climate-controlled shops and hangars. Civilian aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians employed by the U.S. Armed Forces work on military installations.
Injuries and Illnesses
Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians often lift heavy objects, handle dangerous chemicals, or operate large power tools. They may work on scaffolds or ladders, and noise and vibrations are common, especially when engines are being tested. Workers must take precautions against injuries, such as wearing ear protection and brightly colored vests to ensure that they are seen when working around large aircraft.
Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians usually work full time on rotating 8-hour shifts. Overtime and weekend work are common.
Education & Training Required
Although a few people become mechanics through on-the-job training, most learn the skills needed to do their jobs in 1 of about 170 Aviation Maintenance Technician schools certified by the FAA. By law, FAA standards require that certified mechanic schools offer students a minimum of 1,900 class-hours. Coursework in schools normally lasts from 12 to 24 months and provides training with the tools and equipment used on the job. About one-third of these schools award 2-year and 4-year degrees in avionics, aviation technology, or aviation maintenance management.
Aircraft trade schools are placing more emphasis on technologies such as turbine engines, composite materials, and aviation electronics, which are increasingly being used in the construction of new aircraft. Technological advances have also affected aircraft maintenance, meaning mechanics must have an especially strong background in computers and electronics to get or keep jobs in this field.
Courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, electronics, computer science, and mechanical drawing are helpful because they demonstrate many of the principles involved in the operation of aircraft, and knowledge of these principles is often necessary to make repairs. Courses that develop writing skills also are important because mechanics are often required to submit reports. Mechanics must be able to read, write, and understand English.
A few mechanics are trained on the job by experienced mechanics. Their work must be supervised and documented by certified mechanics until they have FAA certificates.
The FAA requires that all maintenance work on aircraft be performed by certified mechanics or under the supervision of a certified mechanic. As a result, most airlines hire mechanics that have FAA certification. The FAA offers certification for airframe mechanics and powerplant mechanics, although most airlines prefer to hire mechanics with a combined A&P certificate.
Mechanics need at least 18 months of work experience before applying for an airframe or powerplant certificate, and 30 months of experience working with both engines and airframes for a combined A&P certificate, although completion of a program at an FAA-certified school can be substituted for theses work experience requirements.
In addition to having experience or formal training, applicants for all certificates must pass written, oral, and practical tests that demonstrate that they can do the work authorized by the certificate. Written tests are administered at one of the many designated computer testing facilities worldwide, while the oral and practical tests are administered by a Designated Mechanic Examiner of the FAA. All tests must be passed within a 24- month period to receive certification.
FAA regulations require current work experience to keep certificates valid. Applicants must have at least 1,000 hours of work experience in the previous 24 months or take a refresher course. Mechanics also must take at least 16 hours of training every 24 months to keep their certificates current. Many mechanics take training courses offered by manufacturers or employers, usually through outside contractors.
The FAA allows certified airframe mechanics who are trained and qualified and who have the proper tools to work on avionics equipment. However, avionics technicians are not required to have FAA certification if they have avionics repair experience from the military or from working for avionics manufacturers. Avionics technicians who work on communications equipment must obtain a restricted radio-telephone operator license from the Federal Communications Commission.
Other Skills Required
Aircraft mechanics must do careful and thorough work that requires a high degree of mechanical aptitude. Employers seek applicants who are self-motivated, hard-working, enthusiastic, and able to diagnose and solve complex mechanical problems. Additionally, employers prefer mechanics who can perform a variety of tasks. Agility is important for the reaching and climbing necessary to do the job. Because they may work on the tops of wings and fuselages on large jet planes, aircraft mechanics must not be afraid of heights.
Advances in computer technology, aircraft systems, and the materials used to manufacture airplanes have made mechanics' jobs more highly technical. Aircraft mechanics must possess the skills necessary to troubleshoot and diagnose complex aircraft systems. They also must continually update their skills with and knowledge of new technology and advances in aircraft technology.
Some aircraft mechanics in the Armed Forces acquire enough general experience to satisfy the work experience requirements for the FAA certificate. With additional study, they may pass the certifying exam. In general, however, jobs in the military services are too specialized to provide the broad experience required by the FAA. Most Armed Forces mechanics have to complete the entire FAA training program, although a few receive some credit for the material they learned in the service. In any case, military experience is a great advantage when seeking employment; employers consider applicants with formal training to be the most desirable applicants.
How to Advance
As aircraft mechanics gain experience, they may advance to lead mechanic (or crew chief), inspector, lead inspector, or shop supervisor positions. Opportunities are best for those who have an aircraft inspector's authorization. To obtain an inspector's authorization, a mechanic must have held an A&P certificate for at least 3 years, with 24 months of hands-on experience.
In the airlines, where promotion often is determined by examination, supervisors sometimes advance to executive positions. Those with broad experience in maintenance and overhaul might become inspectors with the FAA. With additional business and management training, some open their own aircraft maintenance facilities. Mechanics with the necessary pilot licenses and flying experience may take the FAA examination for the position of flight engineer, with opportunities to become pilots.
Mechanics and technicians learn many different skills in their training that can be applied to other jobs, and some transfer to other skilled repairer occupations or electronics technician jobs. For example, some avionics technicians continue their education and become aviation engineers, electrical engineers (specializing in circuit design and testing), or communication engineers. Others become repair consultants, in-house electronics designers, or join research groups that test and develop products.
Overall employment of aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians is projected to grow 11 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.
About 14,400 openings for aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Employment growth will vary by occupation (see table below).
Air traffic is expected to increase gradually over the coming decade, and will require additional aircraft maintenance, including that performed on new aircraft.
The median annual wage for aircraft mechanics and service technicians was $65,380 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,270, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $98,590.
The median annual wage for avionics technicians was $69,280 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,700, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $100,860.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for aircraft mechanics and service technicians in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Scheduled air transportation - $96,320
- Aerospace product and parts manufacturing - $64,900
- Federal government, excluding postal service - $64,710
- Nonscheduled air transportation - $63,590
- Support activities for air transportation - $59,540
In May 2021, the median annual wages for avionics technicians in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Aerospace product and parts manufacturing - $78,700
- Professional, scientific, and technical services - $77,740
- Federal government - $63,170
- Support activities for air transportation - $60,460
Mechanics and technicians usually work full time on rotating 8-hour shifts. Overtime and weekend work are common.