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Engineer your own flight path: How to specialise in mechanics or avionics

Aircraft engineers maintain, inspect and service aircraft to achieve internationally approved licences and sustain aviation's high safety standards all over the globe. Specialising in either mechanics or avionics, you could join a unique club of qualified aircraft engineers who work for airlines, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) divisions of aerospace manufacturers or specialist aircraft maintenance companies.

Recent reports have highlighted the potential shortage of qualified aircraft engineers in the future. Many current licensed engineers are due to retire over the next decade, outweighing the numbers of new entrants into the field.

The industry has also relied on engineering recruits from the military services, but less people are entering military engineering careers today. And the work does not only apply to commercial and military aircraft. The General Aviation (GA) community, which spans a huge range of activities from flying clubs to business jets, also lacks qualified engineers. Lesley Maynard of the Old Sarum Flying Club, Wiltshire says, "Take a look at any small maintenance organisation and you will find a distinct lack of young faces!" The implication is that there will be plenty of employment opportunities in the future for those taking the licensed engineer route.

Traditionally, the entry route to hands-on engineering in aircraft maintenance has been through apprenticeships in industry, with companies sponsoring the preparation for qualifications such as NVQ/HNC and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)-approved licences. For example, Flybe offer apprenticeships for school leavers and graduates. They are also looking at training people from other professions who may have never considered aircraft maintenance as a career.

Meanwhile, university courses can offer an alternative route into aircraft maintenance. The University of Glamorgan offers a three-year, full-time BSc aircraft maintenance engineering, which leads to an EASA Part-66 aircraft engineer licence. Kingston University run similar courses and both incorporate relevant work experience, an essential element of the qualification route for certified engineers.

John Steele of the University of Glamorgan says, "This type of degree offers the opportunity to gain academic recognition as well as a professional qualification. The aircraft maintenance degree is now in its third year and all six final year students on the course are set to obtain upper second/first class honours this summer. They also all managed to secure industry experience during their studies."

Finally, the RAF offers engineering training and roles working on state-of-the-art technology. School leavers can enter as mechanical specialists in the general technician trade, who work on everything from heavy plant machinery to hydraulic lifts for aircraft. The RAF's technician training earns you a national engineering certificate at Level 3 and an advanced apprenticeship, including an NVQ Level 3. The qualifications required are three GCSEs/SCEs at grade C/3 minimum, or the equivalent in English language, maths and an approved science- or technology-based subject. The joining age for the course is 16-29.

Graduates can apply for the RAF's engineer officer route, for which other professional qualifications are also considered (GCSE English grade C/3 minimum is also required). The final word goes to Flight Lieutenant Sam Wright, currently based at RAF Coningsby who, at 25, is already a flight commander of 130 people: "No two days are the same here. I love going to work and not knowing what it's going to entail ­ it adds excitement to my job!"

USEFUL LINKS

* European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) www.easa.eu.int/home

* Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) www.caa.co.uk

* Royal Air Force (RAF) www.raf.mod.uk/careers

* Flybe www.flybe.com

* University of Glamorgan www.glamorgan.ac.uk

* Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) www.raes.org.uk/careers

* Apprenticeships www.apprenticeships.org.uk

* Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) www.apprentices.co.uk

LICENCE TO THRILL

EASA AIRCRAFT MAINTENANCE LICENSING

EASA is the European Aviation Safety Agency. In the UK, licences are awarded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which also approves training organisations.

THE PART-66 LICENSE SYSTEM

Part-66 is the common European legal framework for certifying licensed aircraft engineers in EASA member states, such as the UK. It is divided into three categories:

* Category A permits the holder to provide limited certification of inspection and maintenance tasks or detect simple rectification.

* Category B provides the standard licence for practitioners, divided into B1 (mechanics: engines, airframes) and B2 (avionics: instrumentation, electrical/electronic equipment) subcategories. Holders may provide a Certificate of Release of Service of aircraft following maintenance and repair tasks. Category B licences require more in-depth aircraft maintenance knowledge than category A.

* Category C permits the holder to issue certificates of release to service following base maintenance on aircraft (when the aircraft is stripped down for complete service and overhaul). The work will be carried out by B1 or B2 licensed engineers, so a C licence applicant usually already has a B1 or B2 licence.

All licences are dependent on the completion of appropriate qualifications and obtaining relevant practical experience. Completion of a special Part-147 course allows holders to apply for a Part-66 licence with less practical experience. Aircraft type rating qualifications are also required.

Applicants may study for basic licence examinations before they have acquired all the practical experience required, as examination passes are valid for up to five years.

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