ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
A unique aspect of the 97th Air Mobility Wing comes from one of its four groups; the 97th Maintenance Group. This group is responsible for the generation, maintenance, and readiness of the three airframes assigned to the wing. This group is unique because it is comprised entirely of Department of Defense civilian employees. A majority of these employees are former military service members or residents of the community who went through local vocation technical training.
As a way to assist future DoD employees, members of the 97th MXG meet regularly with the local vocation technical training members who represent the “Grow Your Own Mechanic Program.”
“The ‘Grow Your Own Mechanic Program’ has been going on for 20 years pushing out mechanics,” said Donnie Obreiter, 97th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron KC-46 maintenance flight chief. He added that he met the instructors of the program with his work off-duty fixing aircraft and was asked on a whim to talk to the program’s students.
Since then, members of the 97th MXG have visited the Southwest Technology Center Aviation and Aerospace Technology program to talk to students about working as aircraft mechanics. They visit the school approximately twice a semester and give tours of the base every six months to the students. One of the center’s teachers, Bob Huttie, SWTC aviation maintenance instructor, stated that the connection is invaluable to the students going through the program.
“Direct communication with the base is a tremendous help. We could stand here all day long telling (everyone) how great it is to work at the base,” said Huttie. “But when you get people from the base, especially a mechanic, supervisor, or flight chief to come out and tell these guys, ‘Hey look, this is what we want and we need you guys.’ You start to feel like you're already part of the operation.”
According to Huttie, not only does the class benefit because the majority of the members attending the program will become employees on base, but it also benefits AAFB because they can train more qualified maintainers.
“Since we have a good connection with the base it gives us an avenue for additional feedback of the curriculum,” he said. “So, if they see a trend, where their new guys are having a hard time with a concept, the base can give us that information and we can make adjustments to ensure we are producing the maintainers with real-world needs.”
The class is 18 months long with three different programs airframe, power plant, and general maintenance. After the program students complete an academic test by the Federal Aviation Administration followed by a practical test with questions and hands-on tasks from an examiner. After completion, the students achieve their Airframe and Power Plant License and are fully qualified to apply for a position with the 97th MXG.
“The tours that we’re starting back up in April will start with the airframe class,” said Donnie. “I get there early on in their training to put into perspective what these guys are trying to learn to do. They come out again at the end of their power plant class. When we talk with these students, they're at a whole different level because now they understand everything, they’ve learned how and can see the application of it.”
Being able to interact with members of the base and gain direct information from the source can help students avoid misinformation. According to one of the students, Christina Pope, getting firsthand information about how the maintenance team operates is invaluable knowledge and a learning incentive.
“Donnie was telling us about how the teams work and that where you work on base will depend on what your strengths and weaknesses are,” she said. “It was very helpful because it gives us a better understanding of the hiring process and the work environment. I'm a mom myself and working as a student. We all have lives outside the base so it’s good to know that they will work with us.”
Unlike active-duty members who undergo formal upgrade training, according to Obreiter, the maintenance team members receive solely on-the-job training. Coupled with the standards set at the vocational school, it cuts down on the training time required and sets expectations for the work they will perform on base.
“The quality of students coming out of the ‘Grow Your Own Mechanic Program’ cuts down the on-the-job training needed to get a mechanic up to speed,” said Obreiter. “Without this program, there's no way we could sustain maintenance operations here.”