What does an aircraft airframe and powerplant career look like?

     Someone wrote on my blog a while ago and asked a question that I believe is worth exploring. “I’m 17 years old and I’m curious about this career.  Can someone tell me more about this?  Is this a good career as in salary and job options?”  The fact that this individual is asking these questions means that they are probably far ahead of the curve as far as thinking about the future (or at least ahead of me at 17).  These are great questions to ask about any career, and I will attempt to broadly answer some of these questions.
     For those who like to skip the heavy reading, here is my brief summary: Being an aircraft mechanic can be a very fulfilling and financially rewarding career choice for those who enjoy learning and working with their hands.  The job field is highly cyclical and the best opportunities will usually go to those who either reside in major metropolitan areas or are willing to be geographically mobile.  It also rewards those with specialized skill sets and applicable experience and training.  Is that succinct enough?  Now let me tease that out into a mere 4,000 words.
     Here is a brief list of questions to ask yourself before you go to A&P school:
  • Do you enjoy working with your hands?
  • Are you okay with moving and/or living in a major metro area to further your career?
  • Are you okay with giving up marijuana (legal or not) in order to work in this field? - this issue came up a surprising number of times while I was in A&P school
  • Are you willing to work odd shifts and hours (nights, weekends, holidays, overtime)?  If not, the career options are much more limited.  The nature of our business (very high fixed costs), makes downtime very expensive. 
  • Are you okay with earning a wage in the $50,000-80,000 range, and likely starting out lower than that?
  • Are you okay with a career that will likely require you to change employers multiple times?
  • Are you okay with a career that requires you to pay your dues and build your experience before you really launch?
To me, the most pressing question is whether or not you will enjoy your chosen career field.  I will attempt to help you address that question first.  If you are the kind of person who enjoys tinkering with thing and learning about how they work (be it 4x4’s, cars, four wheelers, paintball guns, R/C cars, model airplanes, etc), you will probably enjoy this career field.  It doesn’t take a mechanical genius to make a good mechanic (though it certainly doesn’t hurt) because I believe the most important characteristic of a good mechanic is sound judgment.  If you feel confident enough to change your own oil and basic repairs and maintenance on your cars and house (change out a kitchen faucet, assemble an IKEA shelf –{ on further consideration, strike that from the record, if you can do that first try you are in the mechanical genius pool}, unclog a sink trap, change spark plugs and wires) and don’t mind doing it yourself, you will be able to figure out the mechanical part of the job.  I would not recommend this job if you don’t know what a Vise-Grip is, or how to use it.  I had classmates who were at that level, and while one of them did make through and is a mechanic, most washed out of the program because the learning curve was too steep for them.  If you enjoy working with your hands this career may be a good option for you.  One other subject that I feel compelled to touch on is marijuana or any other recreational drug usage.  While cultural attitudes towards have shifted, especially towards marijuana, this is not the career for you if you want to enjoy recreational marijuana.  Pretty much every job that requires an aircraft mechanic’s license will be in a safety sensitive position that will require pre-employment, post-accident and random drug screenings.  Let me tell you that there is very little (read: none) momentum for removing marijuana from the DOT’s of banned substances (https://www.transportation.gov/odapc/medical-marijuana-notice).  It is basically a one strike and you are out, probably forever, if you fail a drug screening.  A prospective employer is required to find out if you have ever failed or declined a drug test for a previous safety sensitive position.  If you aren’t okay with that, this is not the career field for you.
If you still feel like aviation maintenance might be a good fit for you, a good place to start learning about careers in aircraft maintenance is the Bureau of Labor and Statistics' website (https://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/aircraft-and-avionics-equipment-mechanics-and-technicians.htm).  It contains a wealth of information about job duties, career opportunities and outlooks, and salary information (including geographic specific information - look under state and area data).  It has a lot of very valuable data and can be a very useful tool in negotiating your salary and benefits.  
        Aircraft maintenance is a very unique career field that has some unusual advantages and drawbacks.  The first thing to know about the field of aviation maintenance is that it is a very cyclical, unstable industry.  If you are hoping to hire on somewhere and work there for the rest of your life, this is probably not going to be the career for you (and there are less and less other careers where staying in one place is even a possibility).  The vast majority of aircraft mechanics that I know have worked for multiple employers in multiple geographical locations throughout their career.  This fact is predominately a function of the nature of the aircraft business (cyclical, heavily dependent on disposable income, bankruptcies and mergers as standard business practices), and particularly the airline business (where a large portion of the jobs are).  Aircraft maintenance is also a very geographically mobile field (which may be a plus to some, and a huge drawback to others).  If you have dreams of returning to/remaining in the small town where you grew up or simply want to remain geographically fixed somewhere outside of a major metro area, this will probably be a tough career field.  If you are willing /excited to be geographically mobile and/or want to live in a major metro area, a job position of some kind will pretty much always be available to you.  In general, aircraft maintenance is a pretty solid career in return for a two year, mostly technical education. 
            The basic credential within the industry is the Airframe and Powerplant (hereafter referred to as an A&P) license, obtained through testing with the FAA.  Obtaining an A&P requires passing 6 separate tests.  There 3 multiple choice written tests that require a minimum score of 70% over, respectively, airframe, powerplant, and general curriculum.  There are also 3 “Oral and Practical” tests that will require the candidate to answer questions and perform practical tasks correctly in different subject areas related to those three categories. 
There are two basic ways to earn the right to test for an A&P:  Attend a part 147 school (so named because that is the section of federal government law that governs A&P schools), or accumulate 4,800 hours of experience working on airplanes in some capacity (in the military, as an apprentice, or in a “repair station” {the license is owned by the company rather than the individual so they don’t have to hire A&P’s}). 
            Gaining your A&P through a part 147 school has advantages and drawbacks.  Some of the advantages are the availability of an accredited degree at many institutions, the availability of financial aid (again, typically only at accredited institutions), a broad range of exposure (which will help you figure out what you might like/dislike/be good at and about the career and specific niches in it), good guidance and preparation for studying for and passing the FAA A&P tests, and a network to help you with future job hunts.  Many schools also offer placement assistance to help you find a job.  Some schools can be completed in as little as a year (full-time, no summer break), though two is more common (it took me 3 years because of one class that wasn’t offered till my final semester).  The downsides are that you will need to find a way to pay for classes (though at accredited institutions, student loans, scholarships, and grants are widely available – talk to the admissions department at your target school to find out more) and not all of the training that you gain will be useful.  The academic part of the schooling is not very rigorous at most of the schools I have been around (though there are exceptions to that).  In general, if you graduated high school or got your GED you should have no problem with the academics.  The education and career opportunities offered by different schools vary tremendously.  Oftentimes schools will employ very good teachers alongside very poor teachers, and too often (in my experience), the quality of the education is heavily dependent on the level of each student's engagement (I.E. If you are interested, ask questions and apply yourself, you will receive a good education, otherwise not).  I had a number of classmates who skated through classes with good grades but did not apply themselves, got to the end of the program, and realized that they hadn't really learned very much and were unable to pass the tests required to receive their Airframe and Powerplant License.  In talking with others in my industry who have come from different schools, it seems like, generally speaking,  the private schools do a much better job with career support post-education (bringing in employers, interview coaching, resume building, etc.).  I know that my (public) school had support as far as interview and resume prep, but there was little to no industry engagement.  Most A&P programs offer you the opportunity to take a few general education classes (my program required 6 classes or 18 credits) and add an associate’s degree in addition to the certificate that allows you to take the A&P test.  My own take on that is that I would generally encourage that as long as you understand that it will probably make little to no difference in pay or opportunities at the beginning of your career, but it will mean more as you move up through the ranks (management within the industry often comes a maintenance background, so it is likely you will have opportunity to move in that direction so if you are so gifted and inclined) and particularly if you decide to pursue further education (as I did by obtaining a bachelor’s degree).  As you evaluate schools, I would encourage you to visit them and try to talk to both students and professors.  If you happen to know someone or can connect to someone via Linkedin or Facebook who has graduated from the program, ask them what their experience was like.  Did they feel like they were well prepared to enter the workforce?  What professors did they like, want to avoid?  What opportunities did they have coming out of school?   How much did school cost?  How did they pay for it?  You can glean a lot from someone who has recently trod the path you are looking to travel.  You can find search the list of Part 147 mechanic schools here: http://av-info.faa.gov/MaintenanceSchool.asp (beware that an organization may hold a part 147 ticket but not have an operating school).  The FAA also puts out reports regarding the test scores and passing rates for each certificated school here: https://www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/test_statistics/
     Scores and passing rate aren’t everything, but you can get some kind of idea about how many graduates a program is turning out and how prepared they are for the tests based on this information.  A large number of candidates with generally high scores and passing rates is obviously a really good sign. 
The experience method can be a great option for some people, though it generally doesn’t offer as broad an education as school does and will require some pretty serious self-study in order to pass the required FAA tests.  The upside is that you typically have a paid job (or at least don’t have to pay for school), and the work experience you gain is obviously completely applicable (A&P part 147 curriculum is in the process being updated, but some of it just won’t be applicable to your work career).  Another downside is that even working full time, 4,800 hours is  2 ½ years, working part-time 10 hours a week it would be over 9 years!  You are required to keep records of your hours and what you did during those hours, as well as have it signed off by an A&P mechanic.  The requirements may be found on the FAA website (https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=6d0c9eeb7fd01619d428ab2e585e5255&rgn=div5&view=text&node=14:, or you can call your local Flight Standards District Office (hereafter referred to as the FSDO) (The FSDO locations/regions also can be found on the FAA website) for guidance on what they would like to see.  I must admit a complete ignorance on what is required for those from a military background, but this link seemed to have some really good information: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/gaining-ap-certification-wmilitary-experience-part-1-4-joe-williams
Another certification within the industry that I will just touch on briefly is the Inspection Authorization or “IA”.  It is a certification only available to A&P mechanics who have held their license for at least 2 years, been engaged in maintenance during that time and who have passed a written (multiple choice) test and an interview with their FAA representative.  It allows the mechanic to “sign off” certain maintenance tasks that a basic A&P is not allowed to.  Many employers like to see their employees pursue this and will offer financial incentives to do so.  Some jobs (like my current one) require it as a condition of employment. 
            The next step after acquiring your A&P license is what I view as the most challenging, and that is landing your first job and gaining your initial experience.  Getting hired is kind of catch-22, especially for students coming out of a part 147 school.  Most employers are reluctant to hire someone with no experience but obviously there is no way to gain experience without being hired.  Breaking into the industry is difficult, but there are opportunities.  I have few words of advice here:  Be persistent, utilize your network, talk to people face to face if at all possible, over the phone as a last resort, and be willing to move if need be.  Do not expect to get an interview based solely on an online application - this does happen, but rarely in my experience.  If you don’t immediately find something, find a way to stay engaged in aviation via volunteering or working an aviation job outside of maintenance (line work, gate agent, etc.).  Employers want to see any kind of experience, and it will also be valuable to you from a learning standpoint.  There aren’t really any shortcuts here that I am aware of.  You will need to pay your dues from an employment standpoint.  Based on my own admittedly anecdotal experience and observing my classmates, most of the time you will have to put in your time in a challenging work environment before you can move on (or up) to one with better prospects.  Most of the entry level positions pay poorly (think $10-20 an hour depending on where you live), but most of them do at least offer benefits.  One word of caution, it is difficult if not impossible to determine the ethical culture of company prior to your employment, but there are a small minority of companies that will engage in shady business practices and that will put pressure on you as a mechanic to do things that are not ethical or safe.  Not surprisingly this type of company will typically struggle to hire and retain employees, so they will target hiring new graduates because they won't know enough have enough options to avoid the company.  You need to be willing to look to move on from that employer if you feel that is the situation.  The most common entry level positions are in general aviation (think small, piston driven airplanes), regional airlines, and larger repair stations.  You would be one in a million if you start out at your dream job in this industry.  Good companies will provide some pathway of upward mobility as well as useful skills and training.  Those are the kind of companies that you can make a career at if you so choose.  Most companies that are hiring fresh graduates are understandably hesitant to make big investments in rookie mechanics that may or may not stick.  Try to find out if the company that you are looking at working for offers any training or certifications to their employees.  If you have a choice, I would recommend looking for places that work on commonly used airframes that are still in production (i.e. Boeing 737).  If you have wonderful experience on an oddball aircraft it will not be as useful for your future career prospects if you have to move on from your original employer. 
      I would segment the industry roughly as follows (though I will undoubtedly miss some, some cross-pollinate, etc.):  Avionics, regional airlines, major airlines, general aviation, domestic contract work, overseas contract work, corporate aviation, manufacturing, large-scale Maintenance/Repair/ Overhaul (MRO), helicopter, air medical, non-aviation (i.e. wind farms and locomotives) and education.  Most often the easiest places to break into with no experience are MRO, manufacturing, regional airlines, non-aviation, and general aviation.  They will also typically offer lower starting pay.  Most typically do offer benefits like retirement, health insurance, educational assistance, paid time off, etc.  
     Once you reach a baseline level of experience (that 2-5 year mark) and higher level pay scale, employers weigh heavily prior experience on the aircraft that you will be maintaining when making hiring decisions.  Employers also like to see the development of useful skill-sets that are not necessarily aircraft specific. 
     The most important experience in my estimation is electrical troubleshooting.  Aircraft are rapidly increasing in electrical complexity, and as those systems age, they require more and more maintenance.  Many of the components in electrical systems run $10,000 and even more, so the cost for changing the wrong component, or replacing a component when you actually have a wiring issue is really high.  Developing your electrical troubleshooting skills should be a priority if you are interested in this career.  Youtube is a great resource for better understanding how to use a multi-meter for troubleshooting and also understanding electrical theory.  
     Another skill-set that is growing in importance is the field of composite repair.  This tends to be much more specialized and require more job-specific training to perform, but more and more aircraft are going towards composite airframes in order to save weight and prevent corrosion.  As those airframes mature, they will require more repairs.  
     There are a number of other specialties: Avionics, sheet-metal repair, hydraulics, air conditioning, painting.  Adding any or all of these specialties to your resume will make you more attractive to prospective employers.  I kept a personal maintenance log where I recorded what airframes I had worked on and what work I had performed on them for my first couple of years in industry.  This is especially useful if you are working on a lot of different aircraft.  
    Once you reach that 2-5 year level of experience, you will start to have a lot more job options within the industry, and you will probably have a much better idea of what you would like to do/are good at.  The career progression for aviation maintenance is that you typically will either develop a specialized skillset and pursue increasing levels in that or else move into management.  The management track typically involves becoming a shift lead/supervisor, then director of maintenance.  There may be several more layers of management depending on the size and structure of the company, but typically moving up in management means moving more and more away from hands-on work towards paperwork and managing people.  The most important skills for management will be communication and reading/interpreting data.  
     One more "skill" that I feel compelled to touch on is judgment.  The FAA licensure allows us to exercise our judgment to determine what is, or is not, airworthy.  Many times the manufacturer will give you concrete data to  tell you what is airworthy or not (e.g. if a spark plug is worn to these dimensions it needs replaced), but some times there will not be specific data related to what you see or find (e.g. an air filter is extremely dirty but isn't due to be replaced yet).  When you are first starting out in the field you will need to be cautious in exercising your judgment by checking what you think against other mechanics and/or field representatives/tech support.  Try to understand the rationale behind the judgment rather than just getting a yes or no answer so that you can develop your own judgment.  Be aware that some mechanics will be ready and willing to share, while others will be too insecure/grumpy/inept to be of much use.  Do not allow them to discourage you.  Everyone was new once, and being inexperienced and asking questions does not make you stupid (though some insecure mechanics pretend that is the case).  Being inexperienced and not asking questions makes you unsafe.  Judgment is a skill that can be developed, and the best way to do so is to gain experience.  This is also one area where your prior mechanical (non-aviation) experience can be a big advantage.  I call this my "farmer sense" or some people would call it a gut feeling.  Sometimes you just know something isn't right even though the book might not tell you anything about it (my best illustration of this was that I noticed on an air conditioning compressor that the pulleys of the compressor and the motor did not align and that was why the belt was wearing out prematurely).  Don't ignore your gut feeling.  If you have a sense that something isn't right, investigate further.  Be willing bring other people into the equation.  Even if your intuition is wrong, it is an opportunity to hone your judgment, and you may save someone's life someday.  My current employer has an actual in-house campaign telling people to "work with a questioning attitude".  The stakes are too high to risk ignoring something significant.
    Ultimately I would recommend this career to anyone who answered yes to the initial questions I posed .  The number and quality of opportunities will vary depending on the current economic conditions, but ultimately there will be opportunity even as our industry transitions more and more to drone work vs. piloted aircraft.
    I will briefly share my own educational and career journey and earnings to give a little snapshot of what a career in this industry might look like.  
        I attended a local community college in the Midwest.  Some of my professors were amazing, and some were simply cashing a paycheck.  All of them were willing (to varying degrees) to share what they knew with students who were engaged.  I also took general education classes (one per semester) in order to finish with an associates' degree in Applied Science.  I averaged about 15 credits per semester, and I did little to no homework outside of class time (save for my gen-Ed classes).  It took me 3 years to finish up, and I was pretty much able to get my education for free (thanks to the Pell Grant and cheap tuition).  
        While I was in school, I took advantage of a couple of opportunities to volunteer with different teachers while they were working on aircraft.  I gained valuable experience and, in one case, even a future work reference (just f.y.i. most schools will not allow their teachers to provide work references – my reference was no longer teaching).  Volunteer opportunities are excellent opportunities to gain real-world experience as well as build your future job network.  There are often clubs that work on restoring warbirds or other aircraft.  Ask around at your local airport if you aren't aware of any such opportunities.  The aviation world is a very small community in most areas of the country.  This brings me to an important lesson: Network, network, network, and never ever burn any bridges in aviation.  Even if you will never work that job ever again, oftentimes people you work with will wind up other places, and if you leave a bad impression, your reputation will spread within the aviation community, and that is not something you want to contend with if/when you are job-searching.  
        I got my first job with a local FBO (fixed base operator) in the Midwest, primarily doing corporate and general aviation work.  I heard about and was offered the job largely due to my networking while I was in school.  I started at around $12 an hour (finished at basically the same range after 18 months)(a pay cut from my bus driving job, but I knew I had to break into the business), but I did get vacation and great benefits, including health insurance.  The schedule was great (weekdays 9-5), and we seldom had to work holidays or overtime.  Basically my only other option was to go to work for a small regional airline where I would have made slightly more money and gotten travel benefits, but given up my cushy schedule.  It won't matter all that much how you break into the industry, the important thing is simply that you do so.  I put in 18 months at that job, and it gave me a wide range of experience/exposure as well as the opportunity to glean a lot of tribal knowledge and confidence.  I did a lot of grunt work (lubricating gear, installing and removing interiors), but I always tried to pay attention when people found/troubleshot problems.  It was a great opportunity to learn how to go about troubleshooting a wiring issue or what common problems were with a PT6 engine.  
        While I was working that job, I got the opportunity to go to work at a aircraft sheet metal repair shop part-time.  I was paid around $15 an hour, and again had an opportunity to broaden my experience and exposure.
         My next step was to cast a broader geographical net because I knew that there just wasn't much for aviation maintenance opportunity in my local area.  I applied in several different areas, including Alaska.  I wound up accepting a job in Alaska and moving from the Midwest up there (without any moving assistance outside of them shipping my toolbox for me - very risky move had it not worked out).  It was a gamble on my part because I didn’t know much about my employer, but it turned out to be a great move/fit for me. I started out around $22 an hour up there, but quickly realized that I had taken a pay cut from the Midwest because of the higher cost of living.  On the plus side, I quickly moved up the pay scale, and I finished making about $30 an hour just 2 years later.  This job gave me more specialty experience, and I also got the opportunity to attend a factory Pratt & Whitney PT6 turbine engine school (a widely used engine within the industry).  I worked primarily on turbo-props on evening and weekend shifts.  
        My most recent step was a move into the air medical arena.  I started working for a system operating both fixed wing aircraft (my foot in the door) and helicopters, primarily working a standard daytime work schedule (subject to change based on inspections).  I took a slight hourly pay cut, but I also left Alaska and saw my cost of living plummet.  Part of the reason that I pursued air-medical is that I am hopeful that it will be a long-term career.   Air medical has traditionally been less cyclical than GA, Business Aviation, or Airlines because it is not heavily dependent on disposable income.  There is no such thing as a secure job in aviation (outside of possibly government) and even my industry of choice faces risks from industry regulation that may significantly impact the number of jobs available. 

            In summation, I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences as an aircraft mechanic (though I would not want to repeat some of them).  I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had to travel and see different places.  10 years into my aviation journey I still am consistently challenged and stretched by my job.  There is something different every day.  The return on my investment has been far beyond what I expected when I started.  

I thought that this tool merited its own post

This tool is one of the best values out there.  It isn't one that you will use every day, but when you need it, you really need it.  For $9 you can buy a couple.  This tool is great on its own, but when you make tips for it, it really starts to shine.  That ratcheting action isn't smooth or strong, but it is one really important thing - tiny.

Low profile head fits even tight corners

I ground down an adapter to make a skinny narrow 1/4" ratchet

No comparison with the standard Craftsman ratcheting hex driver

It is little.  I brazed a piece of coat hanger onto this tip so that it couldn't slip through the driver

Craftsman  5 pc. Reversible Offset Ratchet Screwdriver Set

  Item#  00941469000 | Model#  41469

Skinny 1/4" Drive

I just got the Micrometer out to check out my thinnest 1/4" drive tools.  I did these measurements by mounting a socket and measuring the thickness of the head from the thickest part, and then subtracting the depth of the socket.

My beloved Mac MR4C goes a svelte .295 inches.

My Craftsman reversible screwdriver #41469 with a ground down 1/4" adaptor went .223 inches.  Amazingly, that .07 inches has made the difference for me in a couple of spots.

My second favorite ratchet, the Snap-On THL72 is a beefy .460 inches thick,  by contrast.  I certainly don't hold that against it, but it does put things in perspective.  It is twice as thick as the Craftsman!

Homemade Defuel Cart

I thought I would share this just because I think it is kind of cool.  I was given the unenviable task of modernizing our avgas defueling cart.  It consisted of a cart with two fifty gallon drums and a hand pump mounted on it.  
I should have taken a "before" picture.  Too busy working I guess.

      It was a real pain to use.  It took two guys to refuel because you had to hold a filtering funnel in place and pump really slowly so that it could keep up.  The bungholes for the barrels were always open, so we would keep rags stuffed in them to keep dirt out.  There was a mesh finger screen on the pump, but the mesh was very coarse, and with fuel getting pumped both directions, it would just flush junk back and forth..   

This is what the hangar looked like when I was working on it.  Check out our two wheeled tug.  
     I decided to use PVC because galvanized pipes would have been expensive and required unions all over the place, plus it would have been very time consuming to cut everything to length and then cut and thread it as well.  

My objectives were to make this a sealed system (except for barrel venting) to keep out contaminates, to install a filter that would be bypassed when defueling but inline when refueling, hook hard lines to the two barrels on the cart, and leave an extra hose outlet for times when more than two barrels are needed.  I also stripped and painted the cart itself and rattle canned the pvc black.

My one regret to this point is that I didn't use pvc check valves for the filter bypass.  It is a ball valve setup, which is easy to forget to change, and if you don't change it will bypass the filter when you are  refueling.

 If anyone wants to save some money on a defuel cart, build one of these.  The filter body came from TSC and it really moves fuel well through the 3/4" line.

It took me almost two days from start to finish, but I accomplished all of the goals.  Much thanks to Gary, Mac, and Zane because they had most of the ideas.  

What Tools should I buy while in School?

    One question that I really struggled with during my time in school is, what should I buy before I get out of school in order to cash in on the student discount?  Obviously, there are as many answers to that question as there are people asking it, but I will offer some general guidelines that I hope will prove helpful to people.  The three basic questions to ask before you buy a tool while in school are:
1.  Will this tool be essential to my future job functions?
2.  Will buying a quality tool add value by increased function or a better warranty?
3.  Is there a substantial discount for buying now?
If the answer to any of the above questions is "no", or "I don't know", you should not be buying the tool until you have more information.

    I have mentioned it before, but I feel it bears repeating, DO YOUR RESEARCH.  It will save you a TON of money, and unless you have a much better gig than I do, that is a big consideration.   Let's be honest, if you had more money than time you wouldn't be reading some random blog online.

    You first need to RESEARCH the kind of tools that you are going to need.  The best resource while you are in school is your teachers.  Ask them who the local employers are, and what kind of work they do.  Some shops are more sheet metal focused, while others may be strictly engine shops.  Those two jobs will require very different sets of tools.  Try to find out what your prospective employers focus on, especially the ones that you think you would like to work for.  Ask your teachers what tools they recommend, and what a basic tool set should look like at your prospective employer.  Many larger employers (which are typical landing spots for fresh A & P's) have recommended or required tool lists that are available online or for the asking.  Try to find lists from employers, not schools.

    The second step is to RESEARCH what kinds of tools from that list you really ought to have quality, and what you can get away with buying from Harbor Freight or Sears.  Remember, the only advantage to buying tools while you are still in school is the discount for buying quality.  The most common mistake that I see made is that people rush out and buy a giant tool set from one company.  They start out way in debt and/or wind up replacing some of the inferior tools they had purchased.  Once you work in the field you will realize that no single company makes the best of every single tool.  Anyone who only buys one tool brand has either too much money on their hands or not enough common sense.  I respect the "buy American" sentiment, but I personally support companies that make a good tool for a fair price.  Mac makes the best 1/4" ratchet in the world, in my opinion.  Snap-On makes the best angle wrenches by far and away.  Irwin makes the best channel locks.  I have written elsewhere about what tools should be bought quality in "What Tool Truck Tools are Worth the Money?", and I wrote about the ones that don't in "Tools that aircraft mechanics most commonly overpay for".  If you buy one big tool set you are investing a lot of money in tools that won't necessarily help you make more money.  If you build a toolset slowly while you are working, it will allow you to find out what is the best and most efficient way to use your money.  The second common mistake that people make with school discounts is purchasing giant toolboxes right out of the gate before they are making money in the field.  I addressed that issue in "What toolbox should I buy?"

    The third step is to RESEARCH what tools are the best.  One good example is the Snap-On four way wrench set.  I borrowed this set I don't know how many times, and I would say that a majority of aircraft mechanics have one (seven of eight in my shop).  It is $255 on the Snap-On website, but only $133 through the Snap-On tech program.  Another good example would be the Mac MR4C.  I have sung its praises elsewhere, but with a student discount price of $26, it is priced competitively with even the Craftsman cheapo ratchets.  My third endorsement is the Mac BWS7B ratcheting screwdriver set.  These things are awesome for tight spots.  They are fine toothed and the action is tight, so it is a lot less frustrating than the Craftsman cheapo ones.  Highly recommend this set.

  The fourth step is to RESEARCH how good the discount is.  Mac offers a straight-up 50% discount on almost everything.  Matco has a similar discount.  Snap-On varies depending on the tool.  Some are near 50% off, while others are nearer to 10% off.  Some tools can be purchased on Ebay, Craiglist, or at Pawn shops with significant savings, especially big ticket items like torque wrenches.  Most of the time, usage does not affect functionality (screwdrivers and wire cutters are the exceptions that come to mind) or warranty, so buying used is a good option.

 Ultimately, I would advise people against buying a lot of tools just because they have the school discount.  Buy good quality tools that have a wide range of functionality, like ratchets.  Other than that, I would advise most people to wait until they are in the field.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to buy based on the best possible information.


Boeing Factory Floor Tour!
This was some pretty cool training!  Got to tour Boeing's factory in Seattle.  It's worth a visit if you are out there.


Hey all,
 Someone asked how they could get email notifications for posts, so I spent about two hours figuring out how to set it up.  I think I finally got it.  You can enter your email in the box above that says "follow by email."  You have to pass the spy bot test (not always a given with those crazy letter boxes), and confirm by clicking a link from your inbox, and voila, an update every six months or so when I get time to post cause I'm so busy doing, you know, other stuff like this.

Tools that aircraft mechanics most commonly overpay for

        Today I just wanted to write  a note about some of tools that mechanics commonly pay too much for.  I think that the most common mistake that aircraft mechanics make in starting out is buying a big tool set from one of the tool trucks.  I understand buying a big set on the school discount, particularly if you don't have many tools to start with, but I think that doing so is a big waste of money.  You will discover that many tools are not worth shelling out extra to get top-line brands in.  First off, the big sets will inevitably include tools that you will seldom, if ever, use.   Secondly, even some of the tools that you use will not be appreciably different than a Craftsman or Harbor Freight knock off that costs, in most cases, less than half what you paid.  It is very difficult to buy tools without knowing what is worthwhile and what you will need.  I advise you to work in your field with the minimal toolset if it is at all possible, and then add to your collection as you see the need and save the money.  I would definitely advise you to save as much money as you can in these areas and save your pennies to spend on tools with moving parts (where the tool truck warranty is of greatest value).  This is a still evolving list, and I will be posting pictures later, but I have been sitting on this since January, so I figured it was time to publish it.

Here is my list of tools that aircraft mechanics most commonly overpay for.  

1.  Sockets - For an aircraft mechanic using almost exclusively 1/4" drive tools, tool truck sockets simply offer little or no advantage to the cheaper ones.  I have five complete 1/4" drive sets at work - two complete Gearwrench six-point shallow sets (one modified to be an extra shallow set), one Craftsman twelve point shallow, one Craftsman twelve point deep well, and one Craftsman six point deep well.  (The double on the deep well is definitely overkill, but I had to use up the slots in the Mechanic's time saver, right?)  I have used the Matco, Snap-On, and Mac tools, and I can say definitively, that in two years of maintenance my sockets have done everything the same as the tool truck sockets, and I have never broken a single one.  I have Craftsman and SK 3/8" & 1/2" drive sockets, and I probably only use them a couple of times a week.  I have a definite preference for American made tools, but you could definitely get away with the Harbor Freight sockets in these sizes.  I also have a Stanley 3/4" drive 5/8"-2 3/8" set that I use for axle nuts, and it works perfectly.  I don't even own any 3/4" drive tools because I always use an adaptor down to at least a 1/2" drive ratchet, but most commonly I adapt down to a  1/4" drive torque wrench, so quality is not a concern at all with these larger sizes.  You are simply going to be after the metal.

2. 3/8" and 1/2" drive tools - I mentioned above that I only use my 3/8" and 1/2" drive stuff maybe once or twice a week.  Don't waste your money to buy a $70-80 ratchet in these drive sizes.  Whatever you have already will work, and if you don't have one, Craftsman sells American made ones for $10-15, and they will serve perfectly.  The big tool sets always include this, even though we seldom use it in aviation. 

3.  Most pliers - In two years of maintenance in a ten man shop, I have never seen anyone take a warranty on a set of pliers.  The reality is that we in aviation maintenance see very few things that are frozen or rusted outside of screws, so we do not have to abuse our tools like people who work on cars or trucks.  The vast majority of tool truck pliers are copies of other pliers, or have been copied well by Craftsman or others.  There are exceptions to this rule, most notably wire cutters and safety wire pliers.  Nobody really makes a good knock-off pair of safety wire pliers in particular.  Some of the long -handled wire cutters I have not been able to find anywhere besides on the tool truck, and a good set of wire cutters are probably worth the money because of the frustration and time they will save.

4. Picks - The tool truck ones just offer 0% added functionality, and Harbor Freight and Craftsman both warrantied the only ones that I have broken (both through abuse).  I could buy ten sets from Harbor Freight for what they want for one tool truck set.

Bet you couldn't tell

5.  Punches - Again, these may be worth the extra money for an auto mechanic, but i just have found that as long as you don't abuse them, the cheap punches will last just as long as the good ones.   

6.  Hammers - Pretty self explanatory.  We don't spend all day with one in our hand, so you don't really need to invest in an expensive sledge hammer.  The one possible exception is a dead-blow hammer, but I have never used a cheap to be able to definitively say.

7.  Files - I have not found any good reason whatsoever to spend extra for brand-name files (more comfortable handle?).  They all are very capable of cutting aluminum, and that is pretty much what we use them for.  

8.  Mirrors - There is no justification for a tool truck markup here.  You have to buy replacement mirrors anyway.  

9.  Magnets - The markup on these things is horrific.  I bought a couple of no name extending magnets from Sears for a dollar each, and they are great.  One source for really strong rare earth magnets is used computer hard drives.  One of these saved my rear when I dropped a tool down into a rudder with no access at the bottom.  I was able to move the tool from the outside and slide it up to a point where I could reach it with a magnet from the top.   They also make awesome magnets when attached to a coat hanger.  You can also buy rare earth magnets on ebay for a little bit of nothing.