Sept. 21 – SAN ANTONIO – Boeing San Antonio was willing to donate a used 787 Dreamliner to St. Philip’s College Aviation Technician Program, but the college did not have enough space to accept the jumbo jet, which can carry hundreds of passengers.
Another recent offering – a 1960s Grumman Gulfstream G-159 twin-turboprop that could carry up to 16 people – was more manageable. The college hangar near Kelly Field has no access to the runway, so the plane will have to be trucked there in pieces.
But it’s a good problem to have. With a boom in industry hiring and an increase in enrollment, San Antonio funeral home magnate Dick Tips’ gift will add to the real-world machines that students work and learn on.
The program, founded in 1994, currently educates a diverse group of 116 students ranging from recent high school graduates to mid-career changers and military veterans. It also offers training to students still in high school.
Those who complete the 19-month, 1,900-hour course receive the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certificate and are eligible to take a grueling nine-part license test.
“Once they get their license, they get hired quickly,” said program director Larry Canion. “There are a lot of jobs.”
Stepping into the St. Philip hangar on any given day is like stepping back in time, with planes and engines from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
“And it’s a centrifugal supercharger with technology from the 1950s,” added Canion, who himself worked on aircraft in the military. “Some of these models were used in World War II.”
The problem with aero engines, however, is that even as technology advances, basic designs remain stuck in the middle of the 20th century, he said.
On a recent weekday, the students were studying the engines up close — there’s one donated by Southwest Airlines, which is worth millions of dollars — or browsing through course materials in the computer lab before their four-hour class after. -midday.
The hangar also includes old-fashioned gray lockers, tools, airplane toilets (which the students must learn to fix), and quite a few mosquitoes.
St. Philip’s full fleet consists of 10 small planes and two helicopters. At least half were donated, including a light brown and white Cessna 310 of famous bull Larry Mahan and a Cessna 320 of George Harris, owner of a western clothing retail business in Lytle.
The others were acquired at a discount from some of the school’s industrial partners – Boeing, Standard Aero, VT.
The designs may be timeless, but the gear is getting old.
“Planes and engines have a lifespan,” Canon said. “The technology is not obsolete, but it is expiring and no longer airworthy. The chemicals involved set a clock ticking for the life of the product.”
He estimated that the latest giveaway, the Gulfstream, is valued at around $600,000, but then referred to Tips’ valuation: $1.8 million. Only 191 of these were built in a 1959 to 1969 production run, but Tips said they were well regarded, with a good safety record.
An aviation enthusiast whose father was an aircraft mechanic, Tips used the plane in his business for years, “to bring families home and repatriate human remains,” he said. “If a loved one died on a cruise ship and they didn’t know what to do, we would bring them and the remains of their loved ones back on that plane.”
During a recent visit to the St. Philips shed for its “Mission Park Cares” special, Tips decided to help.
“I thought they needed better equipment, something the students could really sink their teeth into,” he said. “There’s nothing, zero, about the toothpaste we used this morning that isn’t based on aviation.”
The only problem with the gift is that the Gulfstream is much larger than its future housemates. The campus will have to knock down and move a fence and pave a large expanse of grass. The plane will need to be disassembled and reassembled outside the hangar, and it could take up to six months before students can actually start working with it.
“It’s going to be trucked in,” Canon said. “But it’s a bit difficult to take an 80-foot wingspan on the freeway.”
Boeing offered the program an expiring Dreamliner, but there was simply no room for it.
St. Philip’s is the oldest of the five Alamo colleges and is both a historically black college and a Hispanic service institution. Old and historic it may be, but the Aircraft Technician program is at the forefront of its industry, having adjusted its curriculum to meet the FAA’s first change in standards in decades.
“Practical testing standards date back to the early 1960s,” Canon said. “The industry was screaming at the FAA to make it more modern.”
Now, instead of just memorizing the contents of the engines, students must know how to apply this information in a variety of scenarios to meet the Airman certification standards, which replaced them.
Canon is ready for the changes.
“You have to know what you’re doing as an aircraft mechanic,” he said.
The recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has rekindled demand for pilots, flight crews and mechanics. Students are drawn to the program because it leads to a career that will give them options and good pay, with an average starting salary of $35 an hour, Canion said.
Not only can an FAA A&P certified mechanic work on any aircraft in the world, but they are also in high demand in other industries such as the repair and manufacture of wind turbines, cars and motorcycles – car, a said Canion, to work on airplanes, students have to learn several operating systems at once: electrical, hydraulics, structures and robotics.
But first, the promotion will have to pass the notoriously difficult A&P exam. Canon said many students fail on their first attempt.
Luke Garza, 39, took the first of nine tests before he even graduated. He plans to travel to New Braunfels in the next few weeks to pick up the next ones, aiming to get a head start on the process.
“It’s booming right now, and we’re hoping to step in,” said Andrea Lara, 38, who will graduate with Garza in December and hopes to work at Boeing San Antonio.
A Boeing spokesperson said the company’s work maintaining military aircraft at its Port San Antonio facility is fueling a steady demand for qualified mechanics. He recently held a job fair, seeking to fill an additional 200 positions.
The first in her family to enter aviation, Lara was originally in manufacturing at Seafan, making bespoke fan blades, and later at Samsung. She was ready for a shift from long hours and small-scale manufacturing, she said.
Lara laughed when asked about her job prospects.
“No, I’m not worried about getting a job,” she said.
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