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Southern Utah University trains future helicopter A&P mechanics

Avatar for Treena HeinBy Treena Hein | November 9, 2023

Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 38 seconds.

Graduates of the Southern Utah University (SUU) airframe and powerplant (A&P) program are in demand by employers in the helicopter sector — not just because there’s a shortage of mechanic graduates and it’s a good program, but because it’s specifically designed around helicopters. The students, for example, learn forward flight track and balance, and each one progresses to doing the entire process by themselves by the end of the semester. 

The Southern Utah University (SUU) airframe and powerplant (A&P) program is the first of its kind in North America, specially designed around helicopters. SUU Aviation Photo

It’s the first program of its kind in North America and perhaps the world — and it came about through no small effort on the part of Jared Britt, SUU director of aviation maintenance training.

Asked about the origin of the program, Britt first explained that aviation training began at SUU as a small rotor flight school in 2013 (SUU also has an airplane flight school).

“I joined the team in early 2014 and moved up the ranks to maintenance manager by the beginning of 2015,” he said. “We knew we had a mechanic shortage and hiring was getting increasingly hard, so I proposed the idea of starting a part 147 AMT [aircraft maintenance technician] school. However, the current regulation at that time made integrating part 147 curriculum requirements into a higher education degree program extremely difficult.”

Not a person to give up, Britt joined the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) in 2015. He began working with colleagues at that organization to update the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) part 147 regulation.

That year, the FAA also released a notice for proposed rulemaking, but Britt explained that the FAA at the time did not initially respond to the resulting recommendations of stakeholders.

“Our group at ATEC then created legislation with strong support provided by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch,” Britt said. (Hatch died in 2022.) “It was published in the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill. Unfortunately, the FAA did not respond to that legislation. We returned to Congress the next year to introduce a complete rule rewrite created by ATEC and its represented schools and industry partners. This language finally made it into the 2019 Omnibus Funding Bill.”

This part 147 rule rewrite effectively removes the FAA from the education and curriculum side of regulating schools and puts all the weight on testing norms.

“This has been a game-changer for all AMT schools across the country,” Britt stated. “It enables them to exercise much more flexibility and greater capabilities to respond to industry needs.”

A student conducting a track and balance in an operational helicopter. SUU Aviation Photo

SUU’s AMT program

Meanwhile, because of Britt’s work with ATEC to write the new rules, he could start revamping SUU’s AMT program. It would still operate under the old part 147 rule, but would be able to be certified under the new airman certification standards (ACS). In short, it would position for the change before it happened. 

Britt also worked to build partnerships, and has been an enthusiastic supporter and participant in the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) Utah Rotor Pathway Program. He recognized the hard work and innovation of Cade Clark, chief government affairs officer at HAI, in creating the program, calling it a “fantastic initiative … that should be in every state.”

“This initiative has enabled operators to provide us with guidance about how to tailor our curriculum to meet their needs,” Britt explained. “For instance, as mentioned, we do track and balance because helicopter operators asked for that, and every student receives that training, including hover and forward flight.”

Other industry feedback has resulted in the creation of a complete 14-week rotor course within the SUU AMT curriculum.

Britt added that rigging is taught on a helicopter — he’s of the mindset that if you can rig a helicopter, you can rig anything — and his students also do engine work on helicopter engines.

“We also partner with our flight school, learning how to start a Bell helicopter for example,” he said. “SUU also has a working relationship with SkyWest Airlines, which donated a [Bombardier] CRJ200 that our students work on.”  

These partnerships and this adaptability for the SUU AMT school and others across the U.S. is all due to the rule change, but ATEC is not stopping with that.

“As the treasurer of ATEC and the chair of the Legislative Committee, I can say that we are continuing our industry and labor initiatives,” Britt said. “We have four new initiatives in the upcoming FAA Reauthorization Bill. These include military transition pathways for veteran mechanics and larger grant funding opportunities for AMT schools.”

But SUU, just like all AMT schools, needs resources and support from the institutions, states and more broadly, the federal government.

Boosting numbers

Although Britt is pleased that he and others in the community of aviation educators have already being empowered to make long-lasting and impactful changes for coming generations, he is calling for many actions to ensure the urgent need for more well-trained and ready-to-work technicians is addressed.

Everyone will have to play a role. For example, in Britt’s view, companies should be providing scholarships instead of paying signing bonuses.

Southern Utah University students working on a Bombardier CRJ200 that was donated by SkyWest Airlines. SUU Aviation Photo

“The signing bonus of $20,000 is a good move, but only secures that mechanic for 12 months,” he said. “If you provide a scholarship of the same amount, you have chosen that future mechanic and get to know that student during training, and can secure that person for a longer term and hopefully for an entire career. And we as a school can agree to help that student in some small ways, as well as part of the scholarship. Everyone wins. It’s not a matter of companies spending more money, just distributing it in a new way. I hope this concept is going to catch on.”

At the state level, he said governments need to increase funding for AMT programs. For their part, institutions need to make the growth of their AMT programs a top priority.

“This is severely lacking in many institutions,” he noted. “There are those that don’t have any ambition to grow their program and what we need is a growth mindset at every school. We have almost 100 students at SUU right now, and in five years, I’d like us to enroll 600. We’re poised as a team to reach that. We just need state and university support. I’d like to see other schools grow just as much, and I also look forward to seeing more new schools start up.”

Lastly, Britt would like to see the FAA remove obstacles from schools and students in terms of testing and certification.

“We don’t have enough examiners to test the students, and it’s a big bottleneck,” he noted. “I’m one of only three or four of us in the region of Utah and Nevada. It’s just as bad if not worse in other regions. I do about a dozen or more tests a month and these students have to travel to me from all over the western U.S. I could travel to other training schools to do testing, but this is not currently allowed by the FAA. In the end, we can have all the students in training we want, but we’ll never address the shortage efficiently if we don’t get the students certified at a higher rate.”

There also, in Britt’s view, needs to be changes to the testing itself.

“A lot of the changes that came out on Aug. 1 work and some of them don’t, so we at ATEC continue to work with FAA on reform,” he said. “We [had] a meeting on Nov. 1 and we’re hopeful this will lead to more changes. But we’re working to have testing made more efficient through legislation, and we’ll be working on this next year.”

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