A local trade college now has students in its aviation maintenance program in Fresno receiving invaluable hands-on experience – and potentially a head-start in their professional careers – following an airline’s donation of a retired jetliner to the school.
Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, which has a maintenance base at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, offered the Bombardier CRJ200 regional jet to San Joaquin Valley College. Although the 50-seat aircraft is 23 years old, it is nearly identical in its airframe and systems to many of the other jets that remain active in the airline’s fleet.
And while it currently has neither of its two engines, the airplane is otherwise fully operational when hooked up to ground-based power. That means students in the 18-month program at the college are now able to study and work on the innards of the same type of regional jet that is used to fly thousands of passengers each day in the U.S. SkyWest alone has 116 CRJ200 jets in its fleet.
The bright white airplane was formally unveiled at an open house May 18 at the SJVC facility at the airport that attracted both Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and Assemblymember Jim Patterson, R-Fresno – who is also a private pilot – to squeeze into the cramped pilot seats to get a feel for the myriad buttons and switches that control the aircraft’s systems.
SkyWest flew the jet on shorter-haul regional flights under the United Express brand under an agreement with United Airlines. It has since been repainted with the school’s name on the sides and logo on the tail.
Even without its engines, the jet represents a value “that would be in the millions of dollars,” said Mike Dodt, director of the aviation maintenance technology program for the college. Ron Gardner, head of the Fresno aviation campus, added that the aircraft had already been fully depreciated by the airline..
Sue Montgomery, the college’s director of institutional partnerships, said that the aircraft was in active service with the airline until last year, when the school and SkyWest negotiated the donation. SJVC was one of only a handful of aviation maintenance programs to benefit from such a contribution, she added.
“We have a long-term relationship with SkyWest for more than 25 years,” Montgomery said, “and the maintenance director at their base here (in Fresno), David Lopez, is actually a graduate of our school.”
“A lot of the students that we have come out of here go directly to airlines,” said Dodt. “This is going to give them the opportunity to know what they’re doing on these aircraft before they ever get their first job.”
Gardner said the hands-on experience on a jetliner like those being used across the U.S. is crucial for students. “They can learn a lot on a Cessna, but it’s not this,” he said.
Industry need as it rebounds from pandemic
Dodt said airlines and other aircraft operators are feeling the pinch of a shortage of mechanics that is even more acute than an ongoing pilot shortage. Experienced mechanics at regional airlines are often poached by larger companies, creating a flow of vacancies that need to be filled to keep aircraft flying.
He added that airlines in particular “took a huge hit with COVID-19” as the pandemic triggered a dramatic decline in demand for air travel in 2020 and 2021. SkyWest, Dodt said, had 40 aircraft on the ground in Fresno that had to be maintained even if they weren’t flying.
During that time, longtime maintenance employees at SkyWest and other airlines chose to retire because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. Since air travel is rebounding, there is a shortage of mechanics.
“We went from no airplanes in the sky to now every plane is flying,” Dodt said. The demand for airframe and powerplant mechanics is creating opportunities for students who graduate from the program and receive their federal certification.
The demand is not only among airlines. “Think about how many non-passenger planes are in the air,” Gardner said. “UPS, FedEx, Amazon, everyone’s flying stuff all over the country, and those planes have to be maintained, too.”
Dodt added that helicopter mechanics are also in high demand for various industries, from air ambulances to firefighting, law enforcement, utility companies and more.
“If you look up in the sky, everything you see has to be maintained,” Gardner said.
Cost and rewards off becoming an aircraft mechanic
So great is the demand for mechanics that SkyWest is participating in a program with the Fresno college to recruit students as early as when they enroll in the training program with inducements such as a guaranteed interview for a mechanic position with the airline upon graduation, up to $4,500 in education assistance and reimbursement of certification testing fees and moving expenses in exchange for a commitment to work for the airline for at least three years.
“How many people can say when they go to college and do the work and work hard, that they know what the next five years of their life is going to look like?” Gardner said. “They’re going to go to school for a year and a half, and then they’re gong to turn and work for three years. That’s a nice place to be in.”
The training program at the private career college isn’t cheap; the tuition and costs for the certificate program are just shy of $39,000 – an all-in cost that includes textbooks and other materials as well as the testing fees for a certification exam. The price is higher for students who complete an associate of science program at the school. Most of the students receive some form of financial aid for the program, Montgomery said.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median wage – the salary at which half of workers make more and half make less – for aircraft mechanics and service technicians nationwide is about $66,000.
In California, the figure is even higher. Half of all aviation mechanics in the state earn at least $74,660, the federal agency reports.
At the upper ends of the salary scales, federal estimates show annual wages for the highest 10% of earners are almost $104,000 or more. In California, the 90th-percentile salary is just under $105,000 per year.