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When did the occupation of Aircraft Maintenance Engineer begin? The earliest designers were a combination of today’s engineer, scientist, machinist and mechanic.


October 20, 2009
By Roger Beebe

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The Early Years
When did the occupation of Aircraft Maintenance Engineer begin? The earliest designers were a combination of today’s engineer, scientist, machinist and mechanic. These individuals designed and built the parts needed to make a machine operate. They also worked to solve the technical challenges relating to engines, propellers and flight control. We don’t know who constructed all the bits and pieces but we do know that Charles Taylor, a machinist by trade who worked in a bicycle factory, built the engine for the Wright Flyer. He apparently made the first repair on the engine so he in fact conducted one of the first aviation maintenance actions.
 

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AMEs who worked through the various AME models and transition periods had to keep an eye on their main task, safety; this was especially true for those working bush operations.

 

In the book Voyageurs of the Air, J.R.K. Main describes the equipment these early aircraft were equipped with. “They had few, if any, instruments for either engine or aircraft. McCurdy is known to have had a thermometer on the Silver Dart to indicate water temperature in the cooling system. They had experienced much difficulty with overheated engines, particularly the air-cooled ones. A temperature gauge was therefore a must. The oil pressure gauge followed quickly thereafter. Instruments to tell the speed and altitude were still in the making.” These technical advances led to the need for skilled trades.

The skilled trades people, who were later to become known as Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers, were a natural outcome of the skilled apprentice system of the 19th century that European nations developed from the medieval trade guilds. These systems formed the base of trade training for the industrial revolution. The title of engineer had not yet been used to represent a class of university-trained persons. Our ancestors used the term to mean anyone who made something mechanical work. Consequently, when ships went from wind and sails to steam engines and turbines, they applied the term engineer to those who maintained them. Since early aviation borrowed so much from the marine world, the term engineer was adopted in the British Empire for aircraft maintenance technicians. Among the English-speaking nations, the Americans alone tended to prefer the use of the word mechanic and later, technician.

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Society was creating more and more access to higher levels of education for everyone. The effect of that was to create more research capability and a growing pressure to certificate engineers in the same manner as doctors and lawyers. Gradually there came to be a separation between skilled trades educated by apprenticeships and those more formally educated. This eventually led to the aviation industry separating into three early classes in most countries: pilots, mechanics and engineers. In 1921 the government of Canada decided the title of the new licensed technician/mechanic was Air Engineer. Fortunately for Aircraft Maintenance Engineers who prefer the present title, the profession of engineering was not legally recognized in Canada until later in the 1920s.
 
Work Life of Early AMEs
So what was life like for the early AMEs? I believe they worked in small machine shops and blacksmith-type forges. I remember how much could be manufactured by a small shop and forge in my hometown in the 1950s. The pioneer AMEs worked with lathes and files to form most components. There would have been facilities to prepare the fabric and cure it. Wires and cables would have been manufactured.
  
The early AMEs were probably not well paid; in fact, the first mechanic who built the Wright Flyer was found penniless in his old age. The American aviation industry raised money to keep him in a seniors home until he died. He was then buried in a heroes cemetery for aviators.
 
Work was hard and at times dangerous; engines were started by hand-turning the props. One misstep could mean maiming or death. Their tools were hand fabricated in many cases and maintenance manuals were rather rudimentary or non-existent. They learned from experience and from one another.
 
The First Licensed AMEs
Soon after the First World War the Canadian government realized that it would need to regulate the field of aeronautics. It set up the Air Board as part of the Canadian Air Force – the board came into existence on June 23, 1919. In the spring of 1920 they sent a team of inspectors from Ottawa to Regina to license the first commercial pilot, Roland Groome, and the first air engineer, Robert McCombie. The group of inspectors travelling by train reached Regina on April 19, 1920, to issue the licences. In 1972, more than 50 years later, Maureen Rutledge, YZM1081, was licensed in Carp, Ont., apparently becoming the first licensed female AME.
 

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From early beginnings, AMEs and pilots have worked closely together.

 
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There will be further changes to the licensing system as governments and the industry continue to evolve.
 
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Changing aircraft materials and systems will require AMEs and skilled technicians to continuously update their training. (Photo courtesy of Alpine Aerotech)  

The 1920s and ’30s
The vast expansion of Canada’s aviation transportation system following the First World War was brought about by a supply of experienced pilots and technicians from the various armed forces. AMEs spent their time during the 1920s developing new methods of maintaining aircraft and components in Canada’s harsh climate. Aircraft were also becoming more complex and powerful leading to greater demands on AME skills. One of Canada’s oldest technical schools, Central Technical School in Toronto, was the first aviation technical training school in Canada.

The Second World War
The demands of war and the rapid scientific advances made in materials and electronics during war are something to marvel at; jet engines, radar, micro electronics, new alloys, application of electronics and hydraulics to many aircraft systems, pressurization and many others. The schools were expanded and led to the post-war development of our current community college system. The air engineer civilian system co-existed alongside the complex military trade structure.
 
After the war, the civilian system regained prominence in civil air operations since the value of a multi skilled licensed individual better fit into the civil requirements for efficiency and profits.

Transition Times – the ’50s to the ’80s
AMEs who worked through the various AME models and transition periods had to keep an eye on their main task, safety. This was especially true for those working bush operations in the early to mid-’60s as the industry moved from piston- to turbine-powered equipment. Regulations hadn’t kept pace and AMEs were increasingly called upon to make judgments that weren’t always covered by the three main regulatory documents affecting maintenance operations: the Air Regulations, Engineering & Inspection Manual, and the Air Navigation Orders.
  
This extra sense or degree of integrity employed by the field AME allowed aircraft maintenance to be performed in a safe manner while continuously influencing the regulatory regime to become more flexible, adaptive and supportive of a rapidly changing aviation maintenance industry. The process of getting licensed had changed from basically an apprenticeship with specific practical experiences and a recommendation by a license holder, to structured training covering comprehensive subjects at formal technical institutes. Added to this were experience requirements and government exams.
 
Public demand for increasing safety led to the 1979 Dubin Commission, which made many far-reaching recommendations that affected AMEs. It brought forward the AME Category “E’ and led to the changes in the other categories.

The Last Part of the 20th Century
Many AMEs who were trained during the war years lacked an electronics background to troubleshoot and repair modern systems, a problem that became more acute when turbine-powered aircraft were introduced. A new trade called avionics was created; unfortunately, avionics technicians were not allowed licenses and therefore could not certify their work. This created major problems that had to be dealt with. One solution was to use a company-based certification system to allow them to sign out their work. Since the regulator of the day foresaw no need or had no resources to initiate a new licence category, the default was to a company approval. It became the common practice for the AME “B” category to sign out major avionics work. The Dubin Commission investigation into aviation safety led to a recommendation to license the avionics trade.

I was involved in many of the discussions that took place around that time. I, among others, saw the future demise of the “A and R” aircraft licences if the trends continued. The “E” licence was born and the “B” licence became a truly structures licence. To properly align the aircraft licences, a complex system of categories was adopted. AME licensing was extended to include the large air carriers and the AME licensing was further refined in the 1990s to the current system.

The last 25 years has also seen the growth of the AME associations. An early attempt to form a national association in the Montreal area during the1970s failed. However, it did sow the seed in the Atlantic region, where the first association was formed.
 
One of the most significant committees involved with the AME system was the National Committee on the Licensing and Training of AMEs. Some of its work led to the formation of the Canadian Aviation Maintenance Council (CAMC).

The 21st Century
The 20th century saw amazing advances in aviation maintenance and the work life of AMEs, and the 21st century will be no different. Changing aircraft materials and systems will always require AMEs and skilled technicians to continually update their skills. Working conditions have improved over the last 100 years and should continue to do so. Most AMEs today are working with access to warm and comfortable hangars – one only has to look to northern Canada to see the difference that this has made. And diversity of the workforce will be enhanced. Although it took more than 50 years to license the first female, today women are a key part of the maintenance industry.

There will be further changes to the licensing system as governments and the industry continue to evolve. AMEs will have to remain vigilant and participate in decision-making to ensure the system continues to serve society, AMEs and the aviation industry.


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