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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

When one industry fizzles out, a career in Aviation Maintenance can take you higher

October 17, 2019

Fresno Aviation Maintenance Technology graduate Geoff ChattenGeoff Chatten didn’t think it was possible to invest just under two years in education and career training and then snag his dream job…even before he graduated. But that’s how quickly his life went from how-can-I-support-my-family to I-can’t-believe-this-just-happened.

His success story was a little slow to unfold.

A false start needs correction

After eight years in the Army, Geoff was working full-time in private investigations and executive protection. He was three years into a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, but he just wasn’t feeling it. “I kind of hit a roadblock and wasn’t really motivated in that profession (psychology) anymore,” he says.

If he was going to change career direction, he couldn’t misspend any more time. “I knew I didn’t have four years to attend a traditional university,” he says. “I needed to find something that would give me the skills and training to get into the work force quickly, but also provide a comfortable living for my family.”

He started to think about what might excite him. “I’ve always been a mechanical person and wanted to do something to work with my hands,” says Geoff. He remembered years ago seeing TV commercials for an Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) program that San Joaquin Valley College offered in Fresno. “I found them online and compared them to another college. SJVC’s program was faster.”

That was all it took to rekindle an interest planted when he was just a kid. Geoff made an appointment at the Fresno – Trades Education Center (formerly Fresno Aviation campus) located at the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport. He spent some time with an Admissions Representative and was immediately intrigued.

A huge detriment to enrollment was the fact that Geoff had already exhausted most of his G.I. bill that could have helped finance his Aviation Maintenance Technology program. It was time to talk with his wife Elly and think about how this financial and time commitment would impact them and their two (at the time) young children.

“My wife has her own business and works full-time from home,” says Geoff. “We talked about it and she said, ‘You’re crazy, but if this is what you want to do, I’ll back you,’” he says.

They held hands and jumped

They both took a giant leap of faith. “I was scared, especially financially,” says Geoff. “I went from working full-time to going to school full-time and not having income from working.”

There were personal challenges. “I got discouraged a bit here and there,” he admits. We had our youngest child while I was in the course, and I couldn’t miss any class time. My grandmother passed away right in the beginning of the course.”

Geoff and Mauricio, a fellow classmate, did a ride-share, traveling 120 miles daily, Monday through Thursday. “Within three months, we both had blown motors in our cars,” he says. “One weekend, I had to buy a car so we could get to school on Monday.” They made good use of their commute time, sometimes studying flash cards on the way home.

Circle the wagons of support

But Geoff had lots of support along the way. His father-in-law Bruce was a private pilot in previous years. “He’s been an instrumental part of my adulthood and he encouraged me through it and challenged me to complete the program.”

His most important influence was Elly. “Definitely having a strong wife backing me made the difference – even though she wanted to kill me throughout the process,” he laughs.

Geoff also found support at school. “Lionel Smith (former instructor) encouraged me even when I didn’t want him to,” he says. “He challenged me beyond my comfort zone, and I passed with high scores. But I wouldn’t say it was easy.”

Another strong influence was Zach Stewart, who taught two of Geoff’s three airframe classes. “He’s only like five years younger than I am, but he came in with a reputation that preceded him,” says Geoff. “Zach worked on Stratolaunch, which with a wingspan of 340 feet, is the largest aircraft to ever fly. I was kind of geeked out a little bit that he had worked on that.”

Zach was also a graduate of SJVC’s Aviation Maintenance Technology program. “He understood what it took to get to the point where I was at academically,” says Geoff. “He encouraged me throughout the course and was absolutely a mentor to me.”

But Geoff brought his own strengths and advantages into play. “I was older than a lot of the people who go into the program, but I had the mental tools to push through the overwhelming times. I had quite a bit of life experience coming into this and understood that if I wanted to get a lot out of the school, I was going to have to put a lot into it.”

The wind-up, the pitch, and the home run

Representatives from potential employers would regularly visit the campus and present their company’s attributes, while spotlighting job opportunities. Columbia Helicopters had their representative Jessica on campus to interview a couple of students about to graduate. Geoff wedged in a couple of questions during Jessica’s classroom presentation.

A little later, Geoff was told that the Columbia Helicopters’ rep, impressed with his questions, requested an interview with him. “I was two weeks away from finishing the course and was about to do the testing phase (Airframe and Powerplant),” he says. Was he even ready to start thinking seriously about his first job in this new career?

“It was a spontaneous interview and I was not prepared,” remembers Geoff, who was a little rattled. But Sue Montgomery, who was the major staff link between Aviation Maintenance Technology graduates and future employers disagreed. “Yes, you are!” she enthused. On her confidence, he sat for the interview.

“We spoke for 45 minutes, she stood up, shook my hand and told me the job was mine if my family was for it,” says Geoff. And, it was an amazing offer.

“I’d just landed a job for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. But the logistics were not going to be easy to accommodate. His job would alternate four weeks in Afghanistan and four weeks off at home. That meant his family would have to be without him half the time, and Elly would have full-time responsibilities during those long stretches of his absence.

Geoff had to call Elly as soon as the interview was over to give her the basic outline of the offer. “If the opportunity is as good as you say it is, take it!” she told him. And, he did.

A job well done

“I work with a lot of interesting people who have a tremendous amount of experience,” says Geoff who performs a wide range of helicopter mechanics’ diagnostic evaluations and troubleshooting, as well as maintenance on parts. “We might replace multiple turbines in a night,” he says.

The employment package was solid with a generous pay scale. “I make great money doing what I do,” says Geoff. “And our company provides profit-sharing every year, a 401k, and my medical insurance is cheap by today’s standard.”

Geoff has been with his job for a year now and is locked in. “My goal is to make Assistant Crew Chief within three years,” he says. “As Crew Chief, you’re the boss, but still work along-side the crew because you have the skill and knowledge to do things they might not have much experience in doing.”

“Geoff is a fantastic mechanic, has a great attitude and lots of professional experience in the military that compliments what he learned in our program at SJVC,” says Sue Montgomery. “Geoff was hired by Columbia Helicopters and is doing an amazing job for them as a field helicopter mechanic in Afghanistan. He is doing, and will continue to do, an exceptional job for his employer.”

Equal opportunity outcome

“Everybody’s got this chance,” says Geoff. “If they dedicate themselves and push through, they can make it through the course and end up on top.”

Geoff’s advice come from a perch he worked hard for and risked a lot to reach.

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