Avionics incorporates all of an aircraft’s electrical systems and their operation and maintenance. An avionics technician, therefore, must troubleshoot and maintain these systems so that the aircraft functions normally and correctly while in flight. They are responsible for everyone’s life on board the aircraft. The attention to detail that is required is more exacting than almost any other job in the field of aviation. They are responsible for every instrument, cable, antenna, and wire on these aircraft, which include both planes and helicopters. Although the systems are similar in design, each aircraft has its own idiosyncrasies, and students must learn to differentiate them from each other to ensure proper aircraft operation and both passenger and crew safety.
Becoming an avionics technician is a great move for college students seeking a well-paid, hands-on STEM career without extensive education. Avionics technicians are skilled mechanics who install and repair the electronics equipment on planes. It’s their duty to protect our skies by keeping high-tech aircraft mechanical systems running smoothly. Avionics technicians use complex flight data to diagnose and then remedy electronic errors. From nose to tail, these detail-oriented technicians ensure that all electrical controls are properly working. In May 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 18,860 avionics technicians nationwide. Most work for aerospace manufacturers, airlines, airports, or the federal government. New avionics technicians have a bright job outlook because employment will grow 5 percent by 2026. Therefore, let’s explore how to become an avionics technician.
How Do I Become an Avionics Technician?
First, students studying for a career in avionics must excel in subjects like math and computer science. They should also strive to participate in co-ops with electricians if the school offers such programs. If not, the budding technicians should take classes outside their school hours, perhaps taking a year after graduation to get some experience in electronics. After gaining such experience, students must earn a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of the time, that involves pursuing an associate degree in avionics from an FAA-approved college. Additionally, future technicians will have to earn both a radiotelephone license from the Federal Communication Commission and an airframe and power plant certificate.
Study Avionics at an Accredited Trade School
First, high school graduates or GED recipients must pursue post-secondary education. Most avionics technicians attend a trade school or junior college for an associate degree. Associates build a two-year, career-oriented curriculum of 60 to 70 semester credits. Community colleges grant an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) with open admission. Majoring in aviation, aircraft maintenance, aviation technology, or similar disciplines is critical. Some institutions, such as Vaughn College, Spartan College, Guilford Technical College, Redstone College, and San Bernardino Valley College, specifically have avionics degrees. Ensure that any chosen school has regional or national accreditation recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. Look for programs that integrate real-world aircraft experience with co-ops like Lockheed Martin, JetBlue, or Boeing too.
At San Bernardino Valley College, for example, students must take 52 credits of intensive study to achieve the associate degree in avionics. They learn not only the workings of electrical circuits but also how to map and draw such circuits. They work with actual devices, including both analog, digital, and solid state items, and learn their construction as well as how to fix them. They must study radio transmitters and receivers and how to comply with FCC regulations. They even work with semiconductors as part of the advanced technology of newer aircraft. There are, however, many older aircraft still in operation, so students must learn how to work with these aircraft too.
The class Aviation Fundamentals includes the basic ideas and principles of rocketry, the structure of aircraft, flight dynamics, and aeronautics. It’s useful for students to know how a plane stays in the air so that they can properly repair and maintain the systems that enable the plane to stay in the air. Students in the class Instrument Ground School learn how fight instruments communicate with the flight crew, the data recorder, and the controllers on the ground. They must know how these systems integrate with each other and what the laws are regarding these systems’ upkeep and operation.
Other classes teach students mathematical concepts, problem solving, and different methods of reasoning so that they can approach problems from a variety of angles. Often, the problem with a component is internal and not readily apparent. Students must be able to find and correct these problems. As with other parts of this training and education, the students must excel because people’s lives depend on their accuracy and performance of their duties.
Some future technicians enter the job right out of high school and get their training on the job. They go for their certifications or degrees later. When pursuing this route, these on-the-job students need extra supervision, so this is not as popular an option for the employers as it is for the students. Still other avionics technicians get their training in the military. Some of these technicians may even have had to ply their trade in combat zones, so they are already a step ahead when it comes to handling the pressure of the job. Most military advanced individual training, or AIT, is not nearly as long as a degree program or even a trade school program. Still the training is usually excellent.
Whether avionics technicians have degrees, come from the military, or are learning on the job, it is their responsibility to maintain a level of continuing education as laws, technology, and design concepts change throughout the years. Avionics is not a static field, and it doesn’t look like it ever will be. Plane and helicopter design are ever-changing and improving, and the technicians have to keep up.
Apply for a Federal Aviation Administration License
Next, associate grads must fulfill the requirements for getting licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Licensure proves one’s qualifications for doing repairs or maintenance on complex airplanes, satellites, and spacecraft. Finishing a Part 147 FAA-approved technician program is only one component. New licensees must be at least age 18 and fluent in English. Proving U.S. citizenship or legal residence is mandated. Applicants must have 18 months of practical, supervised experience with airframes or power plants. Scoring satisfactorily on a three-part test is also necessary. Local FAA offices deliver this required written, oral, and practical exam in eight hours total. Avionics technicians are tested on 43 subjects from cabin atmosphere control systems to pneumatic power systems.
Consider Pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Aviation
Of course, students are ready to become an avionics technician after the above two steps. Going the extra mile for a baccalaureate can be highly beneficial though. That’s because avionics technicians with bachelor’s degrees have upward mobility into higher jobs. Becoming a lead aircraft mechanic, shop supervisor, aerospace engineer, or aviation manager is possible. Bachelor’s programs follow a four-year schedule of 120 or more semester credits. Accredited associate degrees will transfer 60 or more credits to minimize the degree completion time. Popular schools with avionics bachelor’s include Kansas State University Salina, Southern Illinois University, Embry-Riddle University, Liberty University, and Vaughn College. Already FAA-licensed avionics technicians can typically finish their bachelor’s online while working. Doing so would help mechanics add ASTM International certification and endorsements.
What Avionics Technicians Do
It’s simple enough to say that avionics technicians maintain aircraft systems. Those systems, however, are complex, particularly in the case of large passenger jets. Photos of the cockpit of such aircraft show dozens, if not hundreds, of dials and other readouts with which the pilots must be familiar. Each of those dials and gauges requires a skilled technician to maintain. One wrong wire can spell certain disaster, so not only do avionics technicians have to be well-trained, but they also must be dedicated and sharp-eyed.
There is a subset of these technicians called “bench technicians.” These are the folks who specialize in working with detached systems. In essence, they “take them to the bench” to work on them. Some of these detachable components include the black box recorders, radio antennas, on-board computers, and auto pilot systems. Bench technicians need to be as well-versed in electronics, wiring, computers, and math as their “work in place” colleagues. They also have to have terrific small-scale welding skills to ensure that attached wiring doesn’t detach. In some cases, this results in catastrophic accidents, so a bench technician’s welding skill is of paramount importance.
Some technicians are more intuitive and philosophical than “hands-on.” These technicians often seek specializations like the system analyst or system troubleshooter. These technicians work with the “bigger picture,” envisioning the entire electrical system of an aircraft and ensuring that all of the components function together as they should. Often, these technicians must work to a deadline, so they must work swiftly as well as accurately.
These highly skilled workers must also be flexible and be able to do multiple jobs. As part of their required ongoing training, technicians must be able to add to their “toolbox of skills” so that they can be more efficient than the technicians of yesterday. As with many fields, flexibility is key.
Future Job Outlook and Things to Come
In 2019, there were 160,000 avionics jobs in the United States. Over the next 10 years, that will grow by 5%, which equates to 7,300 new jobs by 2029. The average grown rate of all jobs during the same period is 4%. Part of the reason the growth rate is as high as it is is that many people already in the profession are retiring, so there is a need for talented and skilled technicians to replace them in the industry.
These new technicians will need advanced computer skills to continue to do their jobs effectively. Artificial intelligence is taking over the operation of many aircraft functions. Embedded systems that will make up a virtual assistant to the pilots will be the norm within five years, and avionics technicians will need to know much more than “connect wire A to plug B.”
The chief problem when it comes to embedded artificial intelligence systems, which by necessity will need network connection to ground stations, will be cybersecurity. By law, all of these new embedded systems will need to have the beefiest security protocols available. These new security systems will need to be flexible to meet any threat. The aircraft industry has lagged behind other industries when it comes to cybersecurity, but with these technological innovations coming soon, that is no longer an option.
Technicians of the future aren’t just going to need to be familiar with computers, but they’ll also need to know the ins and outs of these cybersecurity systems and how they interact with the flight controls and mechanical aspects of the aircraft in question. Technicians will need finely tuned training to understand the network between computer software, computer hardware, and the mechanical aspects of the aircraft. As passengers connect to the internet, the possible “entrances” to the aircraft’s systems increase, so the security needs to be both comprehensive and tight.
Even H.G. Wells couldn’t have envisioned all of the changes and advances that have come about in just the last few years. Fortunately, the current “things to come” are exciting and visionary instead of bleak. The jobs of technicians of all kinds, but especially avionics technicians, limited to hand tools and physical materials even just 10 years ago, are branching out into new areas that require intensive training in multiple fields.
Technicians are now required to be programmers and security experts as well as savvy electricians. Beyond 2029, when the technology begins to increase exponentially, there even might be a need for avionics technicians to work on spacecraft. The future is bright for this highly technical and specialized field. In fact, as the old saying goes, the sky’s the limit!
Avionics technicians play a pivotal role in making sure planes safely transport hundreds of passengers without a glitch. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that there are 43,000 flights taking off with 2.6 million souls onboard each day. Given that, technicians are increasingly needed to power up radar, radio, navigation, and other electronic systems for pilots. According to the BLS, avionics technicians are rewarded with average yearly pay of $65,330, or $31.41 per hour. Use this flight plan to plot a successful course and become an avionics technician.