Airplane mechanic program set to open in fall

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Brandon David of New Roads, in background at left, and Silas Flanagan of Baton Rouge, right, perform troubleshooting and operational checks at an AV-11 electronic trainer that simulates aircraft systems, part of an avionics class at Baton Rouge Community College. BRCC officials plan this fall to offer an FAA accredited program to train airplane mechanics.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Brandon David of New Roads, in background at left, and Silas Flanagan of Baton Rouge, right, perform troubleshooting and operational checks at an AV-11 electronic trainer that simulates aircraft systems, part of an avionics class at Baton Rouge Community College. BRCC officials plan this fall to offer an FAA accredited program to train airplane mechanics.

Baton Rouge Community College officials plan to have a program to train airplane mechanics up and running by the fall, more than two years after originally hoped, officials said.

The program, which would produce federally-certified mechanics, is still being reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration, said Mark Peeples, the program’s director.

“We are just waiting for them to get around to us,” Peeples said. “It’s always frustrating, but it’s just one of those things.”

Peeples said the FAA review includes an examination of the proposed curriculum for the program as well as site visits to the location to make sure the facilities are adequate.

FAA officials did not respond to a call to their Baton Rouge office.

When the program was first announced, in 2010, officials said they hoped to have it going by spring 2011.

Getting the program started, however, is contingent upon accreditation and funding and the accreditation process has taken awhile, Peeples said. He said it takes from 18 months to 24 months “to get the equipment and go through the federal bureaucracy.”

FAA officials have not given BRCC any indication of when the program might receive final approval, Peeples said.

When the program does start, it will have 25 students and take 18 months to complete, he said.

BRCC has rented a hangar at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport which will house the program until it can move into a new, $4 million facility.

The Airport Commission approved the issuance of $4 million in bonds to build the facility for BRCC on Feb. 5. That request must now go before the Metro Council for approval.

BRCC’s yearly rent on the new facility would repay the bonds over a 30-year period, airport officials said.

In the meantime, BRCC is offering students a course in avionics — “all the electronic equipment inside the aircraft,” Peeples said.

The avionics course requires an increasing level of computer proficiency with the prevalence of “glass cockpits” that contain few analog instruments, Peeples said.

Students taking the class start “touching airplanes immediately,” Peeples said. “That gets them interested.”

BRCC has acquired three airplanes for the two programs: a Cessna, a Beech with retractable landing gear, and a Boeing 727 that was donated by the New Orleans Hornets in 2011.

For airport officials, seeing the avionics and aircaft mechanic program up and running will be the fruit of years of effort.

“It was something that was already in the works before I got here” in 2001, said Ralph Hennessy, the airport’s assistant director of aviation.

Airport officials discussed the possibility of such a program with several schools, Hennessy said, but for various reasons it never got off the ground.

Sowela Technical Community College, Southern University at Shreveport and Louisiana Technical College in Lafayette also offer the certification.

There is a market for certified mechanics, Hennessy said.

“We like it because we have companies on the airport that like to hire aircraft mechanics,” he said. “Having a local workforce is a plus.”

A large part of the current mechanic workforce is getting close to retirement age, he said.

“It’s going to create a void there,” he said. “There is a market there that’s going to be growing in the future.”

Starting salary for an aircraft mechanic is in the low $40,000 range, Hennessy said.