How do you inspire a 17-year-old high school student who calls himself a hip-hop MC to get serious about a career in aviation? Get GEICO Skytypers mechanics to taxi WWII SNJ-2s to his classroom and let him take a look inside a cockpit unlike anything he’s ever seen before.
“It’s amazing to see how the controls are set up. There’s no GPS or modern avionics at all and the yoke is totally different, more like a joystick,” said 17-year-old Long Islander Travis Schuon. “I’ve seen these planes on the runway and had no idea they were in World War II.”
It helps that the GEICO Skytypers mechanic showing the would-be flying DJ is a graduate of the same vocational training program. 35-year-old Frank Atria of Holbrook, was a 2008 graduate of Wilson Tech Aviation Maintenance program of Western Suffolk’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). Now he’s the chief of line operations for the Farmingdale-based GEICO Skytypers.
“Physics didn’t make sense to me until I enrolled in this program,” Atria told the BOCES students. “What’s different about this type of training is that you end up using every single thing you learned in school, from math to fabric work and metal forming.”
About 100 future pilots and aircraft mechanics got the chance to climb into the cockpits and under the propellers of the vintage SNJ-2’s at Wilson Technological Center’s Republic Airport campus – all part of promoting the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach.
“The planes that taught the pilots of the ‘Greatest Generation’ to fly are now inspiring the next generation,” said Jim Record, GEICO Skytyper and professor at Western Suffolk’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) program. “There’s a lot of money invested in airshows like Bethpage Air Show and the mechanics are essential for all of them. The show can’t go on without the very best ground crews maintaining the planes.”
With three major metropolitan airports and six regional airports in the area, Long Island students have a built-in job search advantage if they pass the FAA licensing tests that follow the 20-month program.
“We get backed up with opportunities and companies calling us to recommend students,” said Wilson Tech aviation instructor Chuck Welling. “As soon as our students are licensed there are good jobs waiting for them — if they’re passionate about it.”
The BOCES program isn’t limited to high-schoolers. Jeff Saint Gerard, 26, plans to graduate from the adult program next May and earn his FAA Aircraft Maintenance License.
“I started out studying to be a mechanical engineer but that takes too long. I have a child to support, and I’ve always loved planes and new technology.”
That makes him an ideal candidate, according to the GEICO ground crew mechanics. They say today’s stereotypical “Millennial” computer gamers may have the hand-eye coordination, but what’s really demanded in the aviation mechanics field is attention to detail.
“We were the kind of kids who played with RC cars and built model airplanes,” says Keith Urso.
Stan Atria backs him up. “You can’t be a slacker and expect to pass all the written exams.”
As a recent grad himself, Atria gave the BOCES students at Wilson Tech some practical advice. “Get out there and start talking to companies before you graduate. You never know where your ‘in’ is going to be. Mine was in working on warbirds.”
So how does a 17-year-old hip hop DJ interpret that advice? As only a Millennial could. “My goal is to DJ in space and have a zero gravity mosh pit one day. Gonna take some mad avionics skills for that.”