Looking for Helicopter Maintenance Technicians?


Daniel Mattingly and Lowell W. Berentsen  |  Contributing Authors

Graduates of the Helicopter Maintenance Specialization Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU) are equipped with the maintenance knowledge and skills needed to “hit the ground running,” and are ready for the specialized on-the-job training offered by the industry’s helicopter companies. The department of aviation technologies at SIU has a unique specialization within its bachelor of science degree program that is in the business of producing quality technicians for a very demanding customer: the helicopter industry. Our graduate is a helicopter maintenance technician who has been trained in basic helicopter maintenance practices and inspections to meet the entry-level needs of helicopter operators.   

A Tremendous Need

A tremendous need has been developing for helicopter mechanics. Boeing has estimated the need for more than 500,000 airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics industry wide over the next 20 years. Since the 1970s, the helicopter industry has been dominated by Vietnam veterans many of whom are “baby boomers”. In the 1970s, those who invested their lives and careers in the industry were in their late twenties and early thirties. The industry continued to be filled with that group of people, who of course continued to grow older. (Imagine that!) Now those “young,” adventuresome aviators are in their sixties and are either retiring or pursuing second or even third careers, leaving a huge vacancy within the industry.

There are approximately 170 aviation maintenance technician schools in the United States that conform to the federal rules of CFR 14, Part 147, and therefore are FAA-approved. There are a number of factors that can influence a student’s choice as to which school to attend. Among those factors are cost, location and reputation (hopefully not in that order of priority). Like anything else, you get what you pay for. Many schools are barely “squeaking by” and others have closed their doors, but some remain healthy and are actually experiencing growth again after a drop in student registrations since 9/11. The Aviation Technologies Department at SIU is one such program that is again having an increase in enrollment.

The Part 147 program at SIU began in the fall of 1965 and grew to be a nationally-recognized A&P school. Although the A&P program has been strongly recognized on its own merits, part of the success story is due to the specialty programs it offers. Aviation technologies at SIU is a four-year bachelor of science degree program, which means the student must complete the core curriculum courses to earn the B.S. degree, just as he or she would in any other major at any accredited college or university. The required aircraft maintenance courses are then completed, which generally take another two years and a summer session. Then in the final year, the student pursues their choice of the maintenance specializations: helicopter maintenance, avionics or advanced aircraft maintenance. Prior to the specialization, the student must successfully complete all of the Part 147 aircraft maintenance classes or already possess an A&P certificate. The focus of this article is, of course, the helicopter maintenance specialization.

Helicopter Maintenance Specialization

Helicopter maintenance specialization is two semesters long. Each semester consists of two separate courses, a lecture and a laboratory. In the fall semester the student takes Helicopter Theory and General Maintenance Practice, which is a three-semester hour lecture course covering helicopter familiarization and nomenclature, helicopter aerodynamics, vibrations and troubleshooting. Also covered are main rotor blade alignment, static and dynamic balancing and tracking, tail rotor balancing and inspection practices. The Helicopter General Maintenance laboratory is taken concurrently with the lecture course and is a six-semester hour (nine contact hours) laboratory of hands-on maintenance practices. During this lab portion, the student learns to perform general maintenance and inspections as per the manufacturers’ maintenance publications and standard practices, remove main rotorblades and perform blade alignment, rotor static balancing and rig flight control systems. Also during the fall semester, the helicopter maintenance specialization students are required to take Introduction to Aviation Electronics and an advanced maintenance elective. Students will often take Advanced Composites to fulfill the elective requirement.

The spring semester consists of Helicopter Power Train Inspection, a three-semester hour lecture course during which the student gains an in-depth knowledge of the operation of drive train components including transmissions, gear boxes, drive shafts and couplings, swashplates and main rotor heads. The second component of the spring semester is a Helicopter Power Train laboratory, which again is a six-semester hour (nine contact hours) laboratory where the student performs functions of drive train component inspection and overhaul. The student gains skill in the removal and installation, disassembly, inspection and assembly of transmissions, gear boxes, drive shafts, swashplates and main rotor heads. During the spring semester the student is also required to take Aviation Electronic Control Systems and another advanced maintenance elective course. Students often choose Advanced Propulsions to fulfill the elective requirement.

The helicopter specialty at SIU prepares the new A&P technician with the knowledge and skills to begin that first job working as a helicopter mechanic. For many of us, working on helicopters developed as the result of working on fixed-wing aircraft for a company that had both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, and then cross-training into helicopters through on-the-job experience of working with qualified helicopter mechanics. The helicopter specialty at SIU has not been duplicated at any other state college or university. 

Presently, the Aviation Technologies Department at SIU possesses 11 helicopters, four of which are fully functional (although not airworthy), and numerous drive train components on which the students can develop their mechanical and critical thinking skills. The inventory includes three Bell 47 models, an Enstrom F-28-A, an AgustaBell 206 Jet Ranger, a Bell 206 A/B Jet Ranger, a Bell 222, a Bell UH-1D/H, a Coast Guard Sikorsky HH3 (S-61), a Bell 214B and a Bell 205A-1 maintenance trainer.

Much of the success of the helicopter maintenance specialization is due to the relationship SIU has had with Bell Helicopter since the early 1970s. SIU has become internationally known within the helicopter industry for providing Bell Helicopter approved specialized training to industry technicians on three Bell Helicopter legacy models. In 1975, Bell Helicopter transferred the sole responsibility for field maintenance and component overhaul training on the Bell 47, along with training aids and equipment, to SIU. In 1982, Bell Helicopter granted SIU the responsibility for field maintenance training on the Bell 205A-1, and in 1992, SIU was given the responsibility for field maintenance training on the Bell 214B helicopter. Information regarding the Bell legacy model field maintenance courses can be found at on SIU’s Web site at http://helicopter.aviation.siuc.edu/.

SIU receives a number of transfer students from other A&P schools under the Capstone Program. The Capstone option offers transfer students an opportunity to build upon already-marketable occupational skills. Capstone reduces the University Core Curriculum (UCC) requirement from 41 to 30 semester hours, enabling the completion of a bachelor’s degree to be guaranteed in no more than 60 additional semester hours. Although SIU no longer offers an associate of science degree, a student may choose to complete only the A&P courses to earn a certificate of completion in order to qualify to take the FAA exams. However, for most students, a primary reason for choosing SIU over an associate degree program is that a bachelor’s degree will generally open many more doors, some which the student may not have even had the foresight to consider at the time of enrollment.

As stated earlier, there are many FAA-approved A&P schools  where one can earn a basic certificate of hours-of-completion, qualifying the individual to take the FAA exams. For the most part, any of these approved schools will prepare the student to pass the FAA exams. Therefore, one might ask why a student should choose a school such as SIU to receive his or her aircraft maintenance training. 

For many, the bachelor of science degree may not seem necessary for what they want to do following their education. Using the authors of this article as examples, Lowell Berentsen had no intention of doing anything with his training but being an aircraft mechanic. Therefore, he settled for an associate of science degree from another college, not anticipating the need for the B.S. and master’s degrees that he would later find necessary for the unplanned future career of teaching at SIU. 

Daniel Mattingly, on the other hand, pursued the B.S. degree, which opened many more opportunities for employment — opportunities such as a helicopter technical representative for a major aircraft manufacturer and later as a flight test engineer on the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey. Neither of the authors regretted the decision he made. However, Berentsen did return to college 20 years later to complete his bacherlor of science and master’s degrees so he could pursue a second career in teaching. 

Getting the bachelor of science degree and additional training opens up more occupational opportunities such as an aircraft technical representative for a manufacturer, marketing, teaching, aviation management positions, and of course advanced degrees, and the list goes on. Many SIU students now opt for a minor in product support. Combined with their major in aviation technologies and the specialization of their choice, this again provides tremendous employment opportunities with great companies.

 If you are thinking about advancing your education in the field of helicopter maintenance, SIU may be the right choice for you.

For more information, visit www.aviation.siuc.edu/technologies.

About the authors:

Daniel Mattingly holds a master’s degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a bachelor of science in the School of Technical Careers from SIU, an associate degree in electronics engineering from Pennsylvania Institute of Technology, and an associate of applied science degree in aviation technology from SIU. Mattingly is an assistant professor in the Aviation Technologies Department of SIU Carbondale, where he has been teaching for four years. Prior to SIU, he worked within the product support and engineering departments for the helicopter division of Boeing for 21 years on the CH-47 Chinook and V-22 Osprey programs.

Lowell Berentsen holds an associate of science degree in aviation technology from LeTourneau University and a bachelor of science and master’s degrees in industrial technology education from the University of Idaho. Berentsen is an associate professor in the aviation technologies department of SIU Carbondale, where he has been teaching for eight years. Prior to SIU, he worked for 23 years as a field mechanic years in Fairbanks, Alaska, on both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. He also serves on Helicopter Association International’s (HAI’s) Technical Committee.