Eating the elephant: Using experience to qualify for your A&P certificate

May 21, 2014

Jeff SimonIn our last segment, we opened the door to becoming an aircraft mechanic through years of owner-assisted maintenance under the supervision of your local A&P. Now, let’s dive a little deeper into what that really means.

The FAA still recognizes “experience” as a legitimate method of gaining the required knowledge to be a qualified A&P mechanic. Applicants for a mechanic certificate with a single rating (either airframe or powerplant) and who base their application on practical experience must demonstrate 18 months of work experience applicable to the chosen rating. Those applying for both ratings must show a total of 30 months of applicable experience. Many military-trained aircraft mechanics are eligible to use their work experience as the basis for an application for a civilian mechanic certificate. If done on a part-time basis, this translates to a total of about 4,800 hours.

If this seems insurmountable, consider how much time you spend working on your airplane (or someone else’s) over the course of each year, and then multiply it over a decade (or more) of aircraft ownership. Every hour counts, even washing the airplane.

4,800 hours of washing and waxing, of course, won’t get you very far toward the other component of “experience.” According to FAA Order 8900.1, Volume 5, Chapter 5, paragraph 5-1135(G), you will have to show verifiable experience in at least 50 percent of the subject areas listed in 14 CFR 147 appendices B, C, and D. This means you need to document that you’ve worked on all sorts of different aircraft systems and tasks. However, it’s not actually that difficult in practice. Ever worked on brakes? Check. Landing gear? Check. Sheet metal repairs? Electrical systems? You get the idea.

At the end of the day, you will need to convince your local on-duty flight standards district office (FSDO) inspector that you’ve met the requirements to proceed to the exam stage. In my case, I made an appointment with my local FSDO, and headed over with my personal maintenance experience logbook and a detailed letter from my longtime mechanic attesting to the years of experience I’ve had working on aircraft with him, and that he believes that I’ve covered at least 50 percent of the subject areas required to become a mechanic.

I was nervous going into the meeting, but it was a surprisingly good experience. We basically sat and talked for about 15 minutes. He wanted to know, above all else, why I wanted to be a mechanic. We talked about what I had done and whom I had worked with. He flipped through my logbook, but I doubt he paid it much attention. He wasn’t there to prevent me from becoming a mechanic, just to verify that I had learned the foundation of knowledge required and was ready for that next step. I left with two signed FAA Form 8610s attesting to my eligibility to move on to the testing stage.

The three knowledge exams weren’t too bad. I used an exam prep video series to study for the test in exactly the same way most people prepare for the written private pilot exam. What I didn’t expect was how the oral and practical exams would go.

For the oral and practical exams, you meet with an FAA designated mechanic examiner (DME) for a very personal, one-on-one evaluation of your knowledge of the regulations and skills required to perform maintenance safely and responsibly per the regulations. The surprise was how much fun I had.

My DME was a gentleman by the name of Benny Britt, and it took all of a minute of conversation to see that he was a walking encyclopedia of aviation maintenance experience. It was also obvious that he was someone who truly loved aviation and everything that went along with it. We spent a very long day together surrounded by all sorts of aircraft. He had me do some riveting, time magnetos, and a whole host of other maintenance tasks. Each one began with the question, “Have you done this before?” followed by, “Show me.” He asked lots of questions and I did my best to answer them.

I left that day a new A&P (albeit a tired one). And, in a way, the experience taught me as much about being a mechanic as the years leading up to it. The most valuable thing Britt taught me is that being an A&P isn’t about knowing how to do everything; it’s a foundation, a starting point, and a license to learn.

Hopefully, I’ve inspired at least one person to begin working toward his or her A&P. But it’s not for everyone, and there are alternative ways to get yourself neck deep in aircraft knowledge. Next up: Amateur homebuilding.

Social FlightJeff Simon is an A&P mechanic, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 14 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance as a columnist for several major aviation publications and through his how-to DVD series: The Educated Owner. Jeff is also the creator of SocialFlight, the free mobile app and website that maps over 10,000 aviation events. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android, and on the Web at www.SocialFlight.com.