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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Curiosity is a great starting point for a career in aircraft maintenance

July 12, 2018

Fresno aircraft mechanic graduate Zach Stewart“I always want to know how things work,” says Zachary Stewart. “My mind automatically wants me to break something down to see just how it works.” That part of Zach’s nature worked well for him when he was a student in SJVC’s Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) program at the Aviation campus in Fresno.

Zach had taken apart a lot of machinery as a teenager, everything from lawnmowers and cars to diesel engines and water pumps, primarily for his dad Pete’s shipyard business. He had never considered something as big as, say, an airplane. But Pete saw the talent in his son and scouted around for an education opportunity for Zach to expand his talent and career vision. Pete found SJVC’s aircraft mechanic program, and Zach was game to check it out.

Zach’s first look at the campus stirred his interest and that familiar trigger of curiosity. Those big turbine jet engines in the school’s hangar brought another, unfamiliar emotion. “Those are pretty massive and complex pieces of equipment that you don’t see all the time,” he remembers. “It was intimidating because I wasn’t sure I could wrap my head around the knowledge.”

That uncertainty didn’t hold him back. He enrolled within a couple of days and counted on finding a new gear in his aptitude for learning.

“It took a couple of classes for me to realize that I could do it, that I could learn all that I had to know,” says Zach. “The program was set up to divide the bigger picture, and that allows you to take it in one smaller piece at a time. He realized he could absorb those manageable pieces. “It built my confidence and it multiplied my curiosity.”

It wasn’t all divide and conquer, however. “Electricity,” he sighs. That class nearly got him. “It’s my personal opinion that electricity is just as much wizardry as it is science,” he laughs. “Electron flow, diagrams; it gets confusing real quick. It’s a four-day process. First day: Confused. Second day: Kind of confused. Third day: Almost got it. Fourth day: You’re a master at it.” Good road map.

Struggle was a daily shadow. Zach was 19; he and Carizma had 1-year-old Lillian, and he was trying to balance the demands of school, family and part-time work for his dad, along with his weed-cutting business. “We were on thin ice financially,” says Zach. But he had a good reason to keep pushing.

“Lillian was my greatest inspiration to go to school,” says Zach. “Providing stability for her and doing something that I felt was above the common job that she could look up to. And, I couldn’t have done it without Carizma.”

Zach found that extra gear and graduated 16 months later. Soon after graduation, he completed all his licensure testing and obtained his Airframe and Powerplant license. That same month, Zach went to work for a Southern California company where he worked on commercial aircraft.

Then a big job opportunity came his way. He went to work for Scaled Composites where, for more than two years, he worked on Stratolaunch, the world’s largest aircraft. “Wing tip to wing tip spans 385 feet, which means if it sat at the 50 yard line of a football field, each wing tip would protrude past the field’s goal posts,” says Zach.

“Zach was one of the lead mechanics on this project and supervised 15 other mechanics that worked with him on building this aircraft developed to carry civilian satellite equipment into outer space,” says Sue Montgomery, Director of Research and Development at SJVC.

By 2017, Zach and Carizma had added Ezekiel and newborn Levi to their family. They felt it was time to come back home to the Fresno area to be closer to extended family. Zach made a call to Sue Montgomery at the Aviation campus to ask her about job opportunities closer to home. Sue had a great idea.

SJVC’s Aviation campus was looking for an instructor, someone who could fit in well with their student-focused teaching approach and who had hi-level aviation mechanic experience to draw upon. It had to be someone who also had a passion to teach.

“I’ve always been open to the idea of teaching,” says Zach. “I love sharing information. If I figure something out, I like to share that knowledge with others. I just think of it as being helpful.” The stars aligned.

In October 2017, Zach found himself back where it all began for him; except that he was on the other side of the desk. And he’s loving it.

“When I see they (students) have that lightbulb moment, when they click; I’m not just teaching them, I’m giving them the excitement that builds their confidence,” says Zach. “I can see it happen in their faces and in their conversations every day.”

Zach doesn’t take anything for granted. “I’m blessed and I’m grateful that, although I didn’t plan to be where I’m at, I just stuck with my gut and was open to opportunities, and this future just kind of came to me.”

Zach embodies what could happen to anyone who comes to the Aviation campus with hope, ambition and maybe a little curiosity. “When I tell you that you can come here and do amazing things, I’m living, breathing proof of that,” he says. “How could I not believe it?”

Like most dads, Pete knew it all along.


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