Aviation maintenance career attracts people with specific interests
There are two kinds of people who enroll in SJVC’s Aviation Maintenance Technology program on SJVC’s Fresno – Aviation campus: Those who enjoy the mechanics of working with their hands and those who love aviation. Instructor Richard Simmons is two for two.
“I fell in love with aircraft when I was 6 years old and saw someone flying a model airplane in the park down the street from my house,” says Richard, who has taught students in the Aviation Maintenance Technology program for almost 20 years. “My parents got me a plastic airplane to put together. Back then they didn’t fly very well, and I ended up crashing many of them.”
That little plastic airplane was the first of thousands he has built in his lifetime that have increased in size, complexity and capability. “One (people-sized aircraft) took several years to re-build, and I’ve helped a few people who have built their own airplanes,” says Richard.
Richard’s fascination with aircraft led him to an almost 30 year career in the industry, first as a basic shop mechanic to eventual fleet manager for a couple of private aircraft service companies. “As a service manager, you have to teach everyone who comes to work to a certain extent,” he says.
His work location in 2000 put him right next door to SJVC’s Fresno – Aviation campus: Both were located at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Richard had gotten to know the campus president at that time who mentioned that the Aviation Maintenance Technology program needed a knowledgeable instructor. Richard applied on a Monday, accepted the job Tuesday and went to work on Wednesday.
A lot has changed in those almost 20 years that has impacted technical education content, as well as the classroom’s student make-up. “It’s just a constantly evolving field,” says Richard. “We’ve gone from manned aircraft where every flying thing had to have a person in it, to being flown from someone on the ground or by computer.”
Some Aviation Maintenance Technology program graduates have gone to work for The Spaceship Company, a well-known company in the Mojave Desert focused on passenger space travel. “They will be part of a team to take people into outer space, then flying them back,” says Richard. That is significant aerospace progress.
The classroom male-to-female student ratio has changed, as well. “20 years ago, we might not have any females in class,” says Richard. Since around 2002, that has shifted, as more women discover their love of aircraft, the gratification of building or fixing something of magnitude, and/or the career and compensation opportunities and rewards.
Richard’s teaching style has evolved over the years, as well. “It should be easy to teach; you just have to tell everybody everything you know,” he laughs. “But teaching is an art form all on its own. If you just stand up there and spew information all day long, they will tune out. You have to engage them by giving them something they can relate to.”
He has developed ways to make sure that the information he projects not only lands, but sticks. He often asks for instant replay from classmates, but never in a way that might expose their lack of understanding. “You have to extract that information without making them look like they don’t know; otherwise, you’ve just lost the ability to work with them.”
Occasionally a student will struggle, lose their motivation or just become inpatient with themselves and try to rush through a technical procedure. “I tell them, ‘If you don’t have enough time to do it right the first time, how are you gong to have enough time to do it all over again?’”
Teaching for Richard, however, is much more than mechanics, theory and memorization. He wants to impact the way his students feel about the aircraft industry. “I want to give them a love for aviation and a love for learning,” he says. “I want to get them more involved in the learning process.”
Richard especially enjoys teaching the AERO 51: Professional Licensing Seminar class that gives students a review of all they have learned during their program. “They’re getting ready to get their written, oral and practical tests to earn their A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) certificate,” he says. “They’ve gone full-cycle and now they’re sharing the wealth and knowledge. They start to realize just how much they’ve learned and see exactly what they got from their program.”
Richard has been a big part of countless student success stories. “The most gratifying part is seeing them succeed and then 2-4 years down the road, they come back and tell you where they are (in their careers).”
One such student, Alice, was among Richard’s first female students, and she had big dreams. “She was very motivated to be the best mechanic she could be,” says Richard. “After she left, she was going to save a million dollars, she told me. She came back several years later and told me how happy she was to get into aviation maintenance. She had made floor manager for Virgin Galactic Airlines.” And her financial ambitions? “She said she had made three-quarters of her goal and was on track to get there.”
Some Aviation Maintenance Technology graduates launch successful careers as aircraft mechanics, then find their way back to the campus to help continue the legacy they enjoyed. The Aviation Maintenance Technology program’s Campus President, Lionel Smith, and three instructors are all graduates. They are all also Richard Simmons’ previous Aviation Maintenance Technology students.
“I feel good about what I’ve done, and I’ve done most of what I wanted,” says Richard. He has made a successful career out of an early infatuation, one his wife Marilyn doesn’t mind. “I never fell out of love with flight. I have an airplane all apart on the front room table, right now. She puts up with it.”
Richard is a lucky man on several fronts.
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