Aircraft electricians install, test, repair, and maintain aviation electrical systems in aircraft of all sizes and types. They are primarily employed with either aircraft manufacturers or aviation services companies. They work on lighting, propulsion, avionics, electronics, and generator systems on board aircraft and spacecraft, or on systems used to connect aircraft to starter carts or the main electrical grid while on the ground.
Aviation electricians can work in just about any part of the country and on any kind of aircraft– and sometimes even spacecraft. They can find jobs with:
- MEDEVAC helicopter services
- Airlines and airports
- Commercial aircraft manufacturers
- Aerospace service companies
- Government and military contractors
The work is important and demands a high level of skill. The safety of the public, both in the air and on the ground, rests in the hands of aircraft electricians.
There are two basic types of aircraft electrician:
- Manufacturing aviation electrician
- Maintenance aviation electrician
Plane manufacturers are a major employer of aviation electricians and the jobs tend to be stable. Airlines, airports, and aviation maintenance subcontractors employee the bulk of maintenance aviation electricians.
Aviation Electricians are Held to the Highest Safety Standards
Safety is an important part of all electrical work, but nowhere more than in the aviation industry. There is nothing so frightening to pilots as fire on board an aircraft, and no more likely cause then faulty electrical installations according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A fire on board can quickly engulf the entire craft before it can safely land.
Consequently, aviation wiring technicians are held to some of the highest safety standards in the world.
In January 2013, an All Nippon Airways (ANA) 787 bound for Tokyo from a city in western Japan had just reached cruising altitude when the copilot noticed a fire warning indicator on a control panel. Almost immediately, an acrid smell filled the cockpit: smoke.
Only days earlier, a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 had burst into flames just after landing in Boston, victim of a malfunctioning battery pack in a forward avionics bay. Visions of a similar disaster, this time at 30,000 feet, flashed in front of the ANA pilots. They immediately declared an emergency and diverted to the closest airport. Moments after they were on the ground, the plane came to a stop and deployed emergency exit chutes, evacuating all 137 passengers and crew safely.
Low Voltages, High Importance
Most aircraft electrical systems run on 230 volts or less, and the important control systems operate almost entirely under 30 volts.
But the low voltages don’t make them unimportant. In fact, most commercial and military aircraft flying today use what are called “fly-by-wire” systems– control systems that work purely on electrical and electronic signaling rather than old-fashioned mechanical linkages. A shorted wire harness spells an uncontrollable aircraft and potential catastrophe and these fly-by-wire systems are meant to reduce the likelihood of a short.
So aviation electricians are paid for their attention to detail. Testing systems is as much a part of the routine as actively working on them.
Redundancy Means There Is More Than One Way to Power a Plane
Planes have to be self-contained when it comes to electrical requirements. Aviation electricians are responsible for installing and wiring up generators which tap into power from the jet engines, and a secondary device called an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) which is a small generator used to power some loads when the plane is on the ground and the engines are off.
From the generators and APU, voltage cascades through a series of rectifiers and transformers to meet different demands on the aircraft. These can include:
- Galley ovens
- Overhead lighting
- Pumps and heaters
- Control motors and compressors
- Instrumentation and radar
- Standards 110 vAC outlets
But even the APU doesn’t provide enough redundancy for some flight-critical systems, so various battery banks must also be installed throughout the aircraft in the event of an emergency. The importance of sizing and installing these correctly was clear in the ANA 787 incident, a stark reminder that aircraft electricians have to be at the top of their game on passenger aircraft jobs.
Yet another emergency system that electricians might install is called a Ram Air Turbine, which is essentially a miniaturized version of the same wind turbines that provide clean energy on the ground. The movement of the aircraft draws wind past the blades and spins them to generate emergency power in flight.
Paperwork Is Almost As Important As Wiring For Aviation Electricians
Modern jet aircraft electrical system schematics are enormously complex. Whether they are part of the manufacturing process or conducting maintenance in the field, aviation electricians have to keep careful records of the parts they use and work they have done to conform to FAA regulations.
They also have to be aware of the electromagnetic fields that can be created by electrical wiring and equipment. For the same reason that the FAA doesn’t want you turning on your cell phone on board, aircraft electricians have to be careful to install equipment and wiring in such a way that stray RF (Radio Frequency) energy won’t interfere with sensitive navigation and control systems.
Electricians have to be able to read and understand special notices from the FAA, called Advisory Circulars or Airworthiness Directives, which provide rules or guidelines either pertaining to aircraft generally or to particular types of aircraft regarding approved installation, maintenance, and operating procedures for electrical equipment.
Becoming an Aircraft Electrician
The most common route into the aircraft electrical field is through trade schools. FAA-approved technical training schools cover all aspects of aircraft maintenance but usually offer special programs for electrical and electronics technicians. Many hiring companies look for certificates or degrees from these programs when hiring aviation electricians.
Some regions are heavily unionized and the process for becoming an electrician closely mirrors the apprenticeship system followed by non-aviation electricians. Apprentices might work under supervision for a number of years before advancing to journeyman level to work independently.
From airplane manufacturers to contracted aviation maintenance companies, some employers are large enough to sustain their own in-house training programs.
Official licensing of aircraft electricians falls under the FAA’s mechanic certification system. Known as A&P certificates (for Airframe and Powerplant), they cover a wide array of aircraft-specific mechanical and electrical systems. They may be required for some jobs and will provide a faster route and higher pay in the field for almost any aerospace electrical job. Although it’s possible to take the test for an A&P certificate directly administered by the FAA, most certificate holders will attend a prep course or technical school to obtain their certification.
Aircraft Electrician Salaries and Job Prospects
Aviation electricians tend to be fairly well paid within the field due to their specialized knowledge and critical safety role in assembly and maintenance. Pay is comparable between the two segments of the profession, as is evident in this survey of starting salaries and hourly rates from a few major employers (sourced from job ads in August 2016; shown for illustrative purposes only):
- Production Electrician with Bosch – $24 to $29/hour
- Helicopter or Fighter Jet Maintenance Electrician with Affordable Engineering Services – $27.05/hour
- Assembly Electrician for Boeing Corporation – $87,000 to $95,000
Electricians who hold an FAA A&P certificate can expect to make more than those who do not have one. Generally, any electrician expected to work directly on a plane without supervision will need an A&P certificate. However, many specialist positions that deal only with components or non-flight-critical systems do not require an A&P.
With the FAA forecasting that commercial aviation traffic will increase by 2-3 percent per year through 2033, the demand for skilled aviation electricians should remain strong in the United States. Other factors, like a burgeoning civilian space industry, should also increase job opportunities in the field.