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Aviation Maintenance Technicians Can Aspire to Lead Flight Departments

Leaders overseeing flight departments have traditionally matriculated from the ranks of pilots, but experts say there’s no reason why aviation maintenance technicians (AMTs) or schedulers/dispatchers shouldn’t include these management positions in their career goals.

On the other side of the coin, when it comes to finding and hiring leaders in this challenging workforce environment, thinking outside the box could increase the available talent pool, depending on the circumstances.

The journey begins with a willingness to question traditional notions of each professional role on a flight department team. “Aviation Personnel International has been recruiting leadership and individuals for 50 years,” said API Vice President Jennifer Pickerel. “When looking for a flight department leader, our first question is if candidates need to be pilots. When I started eight years ago, I’d often get a quizzical look. But that’s changing because, among aviation professionals, talent is everywhere. So, we must consider new pools of talent.”

Depending on the department’s size, it might be better served by a non-flying leader. At many companies, managing aviation assets and maintaining the strategic interface with the CEO is not something one can put on hold for a week or two while flying a trip, Pickerel explained.

“Before committing to the journey of flight department leadership, individuals need to examine seriously and honestly what gives them professional fulfillment.”

Jennifer Pickerel Vice President, Aviation Personnel International

“Aspiring flight department leaders have to be intentional, and they have to understand the role,” said Pickerel. “It’s quite different from managing a team focused on a single goal. They must understand the goals of each department team, and they must also possess facile business acumen. Before committing to the journey of flight department leadership, individuals need to examine seriously and honestly what gives them professional fulfillment.”

Regardless of their aviation specialty, once individuals have intentionally set a goal of department leadership, they must raise their hand and ask for the needed experience, Pickerel said. No single path – pilot, maintenance or scheduling/dispatch – provides all the needed experience. She recommends purposely identifying and addressing the knowledge they haven’t yet acquired. What that looks like depends on the individual, she said, as each journey is unique.

Look Beyond the Toolbox

“Most techs don’t know that there is a path for technically minded people to become good asset managers and leaders,” said Jim Elston, director of aviation at Coca Cola Consolidated. “I came up through the technical side. Before getting my A&P certificate and becoming an entry-level technician, I swept floors. Then I worked my way up to lead technician, supervisor, director of maintenance, on to director of aviation.”

“You must be open to learning new things, even if you don’t know how they will benefit you in the future.”

Jim Elston Director of Aviation, Coca Cola Consolidated

Acknowledging that every path is different, some aspects of the journey are universal. “You must be open to learning new things, even if you don’t know how they will benefit you in the future. There were a lot of things I volunteered to be a part of – to learn and experience. And then, five or 10 years down the road, a leadership opportunity came about and what I’d learned prepared me for it,” he said.

Like most techs, Elston attended OEM schools for airframes and powerplants. Feeling proficient in those areas as a lead tech, he asked for a professional development opportunity outside the technical realm, attending an aviation interpersonal management course. “Never dismiss an opportunity because it seems unrelated to your sphere of expertise,” Elston said. “This course didn’t enhance my technical skills, but it gave me a better perspective about myself, which made me a better tech without me immediately realizing it.”

Interacting with other members of the flight department and company executives is an ongoing challenge not typically faced by pilots and schedulers/dispatchers because this interaction is part of their jobs. “Techs need to identify their strengths and weaknesses and be willing to tackle the latter. I realize I’m not the best business communicator. How can I change that and understand how the C-suite is talking to the flight department when it comes to assets and their capital and operational expenses?”

Be a Constant Learner

“Have courage to learn new things. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, then be quiet and listen to the answers,” said Jeff McClean, vice president of P&G Global Flight Operations. Starting as a maintenance technician in the Navy, leading a flight department wasn’t a premeditated goal for McClean. But learning new things by taking advantage of seemingly disparate opportunities not only prepared him for the position, it led him there.

After the Navy, McClean was a tech for US Airways, moving up to manager at its hub in Charlotte, NC, which exposed him to more than maintenance. Then, he worked for a consulting firm that conducted compliance audits, including IS-BAO (International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations), on every continent except Antarctica. “That exposed me to the world’s aviation regulations and how people around the globe operate airplanes,” he said.

He then became the director of maintenance for a flight department that flew business jets and helicopters all over the world. “Flying as crew and working closely with scheduling was a learning opportunity to better understand and appreciate the complexities faced by pilots and schedulers,” McClean said. That helped prepare him for his next opportunity.

“I highly recommend CAM for anyone pursuing more responsibility and flight department leadership.”

Jeff McClean Vice President, P&G Global Flight Operations

“I came to Procter & Gamble through a headhunter looking for a maintenance director,” McClean said. “It sounded intriguing, so I took the job. Three years later the aviation director retired, and they asked if I was interested. I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to do it.’ I applied and they selected me,” McClean recalled. Along the way, he had earned his MBA and CAM (Certified Aviation Manager). “That was a big help in preparing me for this role. I highly recommend CAM for anyone pursuing more responsibility and flight department leadership.”

Noting that some organizations have growth plans, McClean urges technicians to let their managers know they’re interested in learning new things and ask for opportunities to be involved in scheduling, budgeting and aircraft acquisitions. “People will do all they can to help those who show an interest in learning and growing in our industry.”

Make Your Opportunities

Technicians who aspire to flight department leadership need to remove their maintenance blinders, broaden their horizons and learn the business side of things, said the director of maintenance (DOM) for an international business jet operator based on the West Coast. “Understanding airplane systems and how to fix them is one thing. But the other is learning how to budget for maintenance; learning the budget side of things will open doors to the business side of the department; how maintenance works cross-functionally with scheduling and flight ops.”

Every flight department is different, but maintenance is approximately half of every flight department’s budget, which is hands-on asset management, a major responsibility for every flight department leader. “HR is another substantial responsibility, but it is no different for pilots than it is for techs,” the West Coast DOM said. “The director works with the chief pilot to benchmark compensation and flight-related operations.”

Traditionally, advancing in a flight department depended on seniority. “But not always because there is not a lot of turnover,” the DOM said. “You must pursue knowledge and transparently share what you’ve learned with others because it enhances and ensures the department’s overall safety and success. We need to retire the tradition of keeping secrets because the person with all the knowledge holds all the power.”

He urges his technicians to ask questions. “I want them to know that when I’m creating the annual budget, they can ask me about something they want to know more about,” the DOM said. “Things happen. And when they do, the rest of the team should have the knowledge to keep the department flying.

“It is an interesting time for us, and some great and growing opportunities exist,” the director said. He then named four flight department leaders who started in maintenance. “Stay curious. Learn new things. Have tenacity about you. If you love fixing airplanes, do what you love. But don’t feel like that is your limiting factor. Be hungry. Ask the questions. Make your ambitions known. If you have more to offer, offer it!”

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