By Laura Camper / [email protected]
His interest in aviation was piqued when he went to an air show with his son a few years ago.
So they started going to more air shows. Then in June, 37-year-old Jon Morris quit his job at an area hospital and signed up for a local avionics technician apprenticeship.
“I was looking for something different. I’ve always been interested in mechanical stuff; I didn’t want to work on the cars, though,” Morris said.
On Wednesday, he and two other apprentices were in the Oasis Aviation Maintenance hangar working on a tire from one of the planes to be repaired.
Oasis Aviation Maintenance maintains and upgrades old aircraft, mainly private, to the new electronic devices available today. Planes come from all over the country. In the hangar on Wednesday were planes from Minnesota, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. The oldest was a 1957 model.
“A lot of the upgrades we do allow the pilot to fly in all weathers,” said company owner Steven Olive. “They can fly in the clouds. They can fly above the clouds.
They add an autopilot; they’re basically adding technology that’s been available in big jets for some time and is now being applied to smaller planes, he said.
In 2020, he added a school, Learn Avionics LLC, to his business.
“Really, this stuff grew out of trying to find people, employees,” Olive said.
Olive, a retired US Air Force colonel, started his business in 2011 flying helicopters to do aerial mapping. He maintained his own fleet out of necessity and was soon asked to maintain other people’s planes. His business grew and he needed well-trained employees. Unfortunately, very few avionics programs are offered, and most lack the hands-on training it offers, Olive said.
In 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the creation of avionics apprenticeship programs, he said. So he decided that’s what he would do. The building next to hers had already been converted into a school by another company that went out of business during the pandemic, Olive said. So he took it back.
Its training school started in 2020 with online and weekend courses. In March 2021, the school added the 12-month Avionics Technician Apprenticeship Program. Then recently, the school expanded learning to include airframe and powertrain mechanics, bodywork, and aircraft engine work.
The program is approved by the Department of Labor, which means it must meet certain qualifications, he said. This includes paying apprentices and tracking their progress, Olive said.
“Apprenticeship falls under my maintenance and avionics company because the Department of Labor requires a sponsor for apprentices,” Olive said. “So I’m the employer-sponsor.”
Three apprentices have graduated from the program, and there are currently seven in the program. The first graduate, James Hertig, is now the school’s lead instructor.
Hertig was an instructor in the US Navy, an underwater electrician.
“Submarines are basically underwater aircraft,” Hertig said. “They have wings and everything.”
When Hertig left the army, he didn’t want a desk job. He wanted a job as interesting as working on a submarine, so when he heard about Learning Aviation, he decided to try airplanes.
“I have an engineering background, and airplanes are really an engineering thing, from how they fly — airlock engineering — to how computers work — electrical engineering,” Hertig said.
He also thinks he’d like to get his pilot’s license eventually, Hertig said.
Chris Vallery, 25, an apprentice in the two-year program, is considering the same. Vallery used to work as a construction equipment field technician, but since his family worked in aviation, he has always been in the industry. He wanted to try airplanes. He loves the job and the fact that he can fly the planes on test flights to make sure all the new equipment is working.
“We have a pilot showing up, so he’ll be flying and we’re like co-pilots,” Vallery said. “We watch the instruments as it flies. It’s really cool.”
The school is limited by Olive’s small staff and payroll, since he pays all of the apprentices. They can currently accommodate around three apprentices in January and three in June. But he applied for a grant to expand the program.
“I can’t produce (technicians and mechanics) fast enough,” Olive said.
He began checking off companies that contacted him to see if he had any technicians ready to graduate, including a company in Naples, Florida, and companies in Savannah, Georgia and Atlanta. A future graduate is now finishing his final two months of apprenticeship in Miami where he was hired, Olive said. Once they have completed the classroom portion – the first five weeks of the program – and passed their aircraft electronics technician certification exam, apprentices can complete their apprenticeship at another company, he said. .
“It’s a really good introduction to all things aviation,” Hertig said of the program. “Whether you want to be a pilot but just aren’t there yet, or want to do something aviation-related, this is a great first step.”
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