High-Flying Careers: Aviation Maintenance Technology

High-Flying Careers: Aviation Maintenance Technology

If you are looking for a career where even the sky isn’t the limit, studying to become an aircraft maintenance technician at Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) could put you on the runway

When it comes to aviation maintenance technology, Ty Harrison, program director of CNCC’s Aviation Maintenance Technology Occupational Certificate (CERT) and Associate of Applied Science Degree (AAS) program has an insider’s perspective on this high-flying career. For him, it has been a lifelong passion. to success.

Before joining the faculty at CNCC, Harrison's long and distinguished career in aircraft maintenance took him from sweeping floors as a teenager hanging around aircraft hangars, to military service in the United States Marine Corps working on C-130 aircraft, to an international career in commercial aviation with Delta Air Lines.

“As a 16-year-old, just like many other teenagers, I was still exploring what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” recalls Harrison. “I tried a couple of other things outside of aviation — but aviation is my love, it’s where all my satisfaction is. I even went so far as to learn to fly. While that was a lot of fun and I still enjoy doing that, I received a lot more satisfaction from working on and maintaining the aircraft than I did actually flying them. I just enjoyed doing things with my hands and fixing things.”

Harrison describes his career in aircraft maintenance as “a ton of fun.” It was his love of the job that led him to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. When he reached retirement age, he knew he wasn’t ready to put his tools down and leave the hangar environment. Instead, he accepted a new challenge and committed to teaching the next generation of aircraft maintenance technicians.

“I retired from Delta about eight years ago,” says Harrison. “I've been here with CNCC ever since, passing on my experience and paying forward what I've learned in aviation as an aircraft maintenance technician.”

Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT): What It’s All About


So what does an aircraft maintenance technician actually do?

“If you ask any aircraft maintenance technician out there they are just going to say ‘maintain aircraft,’” says Harrison. “That really cuts us short but that’s just the way we are!”

The truth is, a career in aviation technology goes a lot deeper than that brief description implies. Aircraft are complex machines and it requires a complex skill set to maintain them in safe and excellent working condition.

“There is so much that goes into maintaining an aircraft and the skills that are required for that,” says Harrison. “Aircraft go through maintenance every day of their working life. That can be anything from a pre-flight inspection all the way up to the complete overhaul of the airframe and the engines. Aircraft mechanics are looking at hydraulics, flight control systems, and repairs on the airplane — whether they are made of sheet metal or today's new composites. It could be simple everyday jobs like checking fluids, or perhaps more complex tasks like troubleshooting problems with navigation, communication, and satellite systems. We’re even responsible for maintaining and fixing passenger entertainment systems.”

According to Harrison, in addition to the hands-on technical skills necessary for the profession, aircraft maintenance technicians also need to develop strong communication skills.

“We are responsible for advising the flight crews about things that are going on with the airplane and how to deal with those,” says Harrison. “We consult with aircraft owners about what kind of maintenance program they need and what they need to look for down the road as far as major things that need to be fixed. We help them understand if they can put a repair off until the next major service or if it requires more urgent attention. There’s a lot of advising and consulting on our part. We even get involved in teaching. Every once in a while something new comes up on the airplane and you might have to instruct a pilot or a flight attendant on how it works.”

Aviation Tech School

At CNCC, students are taught the general principles of flight before being exposed to a broad range of inspection and maintenance tasks and the various processes required to keep an aircraft airworthy.

“We start them out in a general section which covers the history of aviation and then the basic theory of flight,” says Harrison. “We then go into the physics covering what generates the lift on the airplane and Bernoulli's principle. Then we get into pressures and gases and all that stuff you were supposed to have learned in high school — but we go a little more in-depth with it.”

Learning about the various materials used in aircraft construction is an important part of the program — airplanes have come a very long way since the days of the Wright brothers.

“Back in the day, we started out with wood and fabric structures on our aircraft,” says Harrison. “We still have a lot of those airplanes around so we talk about that before we move into the different types of metals and other materials that we have on airplanes today. We learn how the metal is extruded, how it’s formed, all those material processes to get the shape of the airplane. Then we talk about the fasteners — the rivets, nuts, and bolts that hold the airplane together —  and how we check and secure those to maintain the airworthiness standard of the airplane and guarantee flight safety.”

Safety First

AMT student

Safety is obviously the number one priority in the aviation industry but it's not just the safety of the aircraft, flight crew, and passengers that students must learn to guarantee. There are many processes aircraft maintenance mechanics must follow to ensure their own safety when working on an airplane.

“We talk a lot about electricity and hydraulics, and the sequence of doing things safely,” says Harrison. “Obviously, you don't want to break open a hydraulic line on a large airplane when it’s pressurized to 3200 psi because if it doesn't kill you, it’s definitely going to hurt you or hurt the airplane. There is a process of doing things in the right order and if you don't, the consequences can be devastating.”

While these processes are initially taught from the safety of the classroom environment, it isn’t long before students are able to put them into practice.

Hands-on Training

Alongside the classroom training, students get the opportunity to perform hands-on work across CNCC’s fleet of aircraft and 

collection of engines.

“We have a range of aircraft that students work on,” says Harrison. “We start them out on a general aviation aircraft like our single-engine Cessna 152 or Piper Tomahawk. We also have a twin-engine Cessna 337, and a Rockwell Sabreliner corporate jet so they are getting a nicely rounded learning experience working on different types of aircraft.”

Students enjoy working on the airframes, repairing aircraft skins, maintaining navigation and communication systems, servicing flight controls, and removing, testing and re-installing engines. All work is carried out under expert supervision and must be performed to exacting requirements.

“It’s not just a case of teaching them how to rivet,” says Harrison. “We also teach them what that rivet is supposed to look like because there are standards they must reach in terms of compliance and quality of the finished product.

Lifelong Learning


By Harrison’s own admission, the aviation maintenance technology programs represent a lot of learning to fit into a 21-month program. This highlights the need for students to prepare themselves for extensive lifelong learning after they leave AMT school.

“It's a pretty broad learning experience but once they get out into the working environment, graduates are paired with experienced technicians to get the exposure they need to become an expert on a specific airplane,” says Harrison. “Technicians will then often pick a skill that they enjoy the most and specialize in it. We give our students the basics, then when they graduate and go to work, they continue to train. In aircraft maintenance, the training does not stop.”

The Difference Between the CERT and AAS Programs

CNCC offers both an Occupational Certificate (CERT) and an Associate of Applied Science Degree (AAS) program in Aviation Maintenance Technology. Both programs prepare students to become FAA-certified aircraft maintenance technicians.

“The occupational certificate is actually built into the Associates of Applied Science program,” says Harrison. “The occupational certificate is strictly the aviation maintenance training, so that’s anything to do with the airplane. It's going to take you 89 credits to earn that occupational certificate.”

The associate degree program includes additional classes covering topics like English, technical writing, public speaking, and behavioral sciences, and it can provide a jumpstart to achieving additional educational goals and opening up future career opportunities.

“The associate degree is more for somebody who is interested in pursuing a bachelor of science degree further down the line," says Harrison. "This is an especially attractive option for students interested in going into the management side of aircraft maintenance.”

Aviation Careers

According to Harrison, the career opportunities for certified aircraft maintenance technicians are “amazing.”

“Aviation is wide open at the moment,” says Harrison. “A report that Boeing put out states that between 2019 and 2038 there will be a demand for 198,000 new aviation maintenance technicians in the United States alone. A lot of what is driving that is guys like me who have retired.  There aren't very many people coming up behind us to fill those gaps. Once a student has that FAA license in their hand they can go just about anywhere they want to. They can go into general aviation and work on small aircraft, they can go into corporate aviation, they can go into the airline industry, they can even go into the space industry. That's just the beginning.”

Once they launch their careers in the aviation industry, graduates can specialize even further.

“If they like working with composites they can go to a composite shop where they build up or re-design composite components to put on the aircraft,” says Harrison. “Or perhaps they can go into non-destructive inspection which is looking for anomalies in metals and other materials that we cannot see with our naked eye. So they are doing ultrasonic inspection, Eddy-current inspection, X-ray inspection; it's another area that they could specialize in.”

According to Harrison, it’s not just the aviation industry that recruits skilled aircraft maintenance technicians. Their skills are portable and in demand.

“If they decide that they don't want to stay in aviation, other industries are also looking for their knowledge and skills,” says Harrison. “The power generation industry — for instance, power plants, wind turbine operators and solar farms — they want their skills. The automotive industry is looking for them. Even the big automotive sports folks like NASCAR want our technicians because they can work with those precision tolerances that are going into cars and they know how to safety check those components so they don't have a nut that backs off and gets loose on a track somewhere.”

Who Attends Aviation Tech School?


There is no typical aviation technology student.

“We're seeing students from all walks of life,” says Harrison. “As well as young people seeking to launch their career in the aviation industry, I've had students who have retired and decided that they need something to do. They say, ‘I’ve got my own airplane so I'm going to come over here and learn how to maintain it.’”

In what is still a largely male-dominated profession, Harrison is particularly pleased to see a number of women graduating from the program and building successful careers in aviation maintenance technology.

“There are a lot of opportunities for women when they come through the program,” says Harrison. “In fact, a young woman who recently graduated from CNCC was nationally recognized as the number one student across all the AMT schools here in the US and she's now working with an airline based in Denver.”

Why Choose CNCC?

Harrison believes there are many things that set CNCC apart from other AMT schools.

“We've got an excellent student/instructor ratio,” says Harrison. “Our classes are fairly small, so the student is going to learn a lot more. Speaking personally, thanks to the small class size, I’m able to go above and beyond just teaching the basics, ensuring my students get the full benefit of my experience.  Then there is the question of value. Compared to other programs here in the state, our tuition is certainly a little more attractive than most.”

CNCC’s Rangely Campus is also a major selling point for the aviation tech school. After all, even for aviation technology aficionados, there’s more to life than an aircraft hangar.

“There are a lot of opportunities for having outdoor experiences here in northwestern Colorado,” says Harrison. “If you are interested in river rafting and canoeing, hiking, rock climbing, camping or fishing — there’s plenty of that around here.”

The location also has a huge benefit for any students who want to learn to fly while attending CNCC.

“They've got lots of airspace up there," says Harrison. "You can go up and practice maneuvers and not have to worry about being in a congested area.” In fact, for students interested in flight, CNCC also offers a comprehensive, national-caliber Aviation Technology - Flight program. There’s even an introductory course on unmanned aircraft systems to learn all about drones and drone technology.

Learn More

To get started on a (literally) high-flying career in aviation maintenance technology, learn more about the Occupational Certificate and Associate of Applied Science Degree programs by visiting the program page on the CNCC website.


Published July 14, 2020

About CNCC

Colorado Northwestern is one college in two Colorado communities. Depending on what you want to study, CNCC has the perfect surroundings and facilities to meet your needs. Founded in 1962 as “Rangely College,” CNCC now serves nearly 1,600 students on two campuses, two service centers and online. Our two campuses are located in Craig and Rangely and are 90 miles apart in the mountains and canyons of Northwestern Colorado.