Avionics techs combine love of aviation, problem-solving
By NATHAN PHELPS
Feb. 26, 2018
ASHWAUBENON, Wis. (AP) — A pair of legs stick out from the open cockpit door on Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. It's a small, single-engine airplane capable of hauling six people and Adam Barnick is contorting himself between the seat and rudder pedals to reach behind the airplane's instrument panel.
He's in the process of installing new avionics in the small general aviation airplane at Jet Air Group at Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport. It's one job in a list of work booked into the summer.
"This is one of our latest installs, a whole new panel and a whole new dash," Barnick told USA Today Network-Wisconsin as he stood next to the cream-colored airplane, now equipped with new radios and other electronic instruments within reach of the pilot.
Barnick is one of three avionics technicians at Jet Air Group, and one of four employees in the avionics division of the flight service and aircraft maintenance business located adjacent to the main terminal at the airport. In recent years the aviation industry has faced a dearth of workers to fill roles ranging from mechanics to regional pilots.
Technicians like Barnick repair and install electronic systems used for navigation, engine monitoring and communications. Some also work with customers to design and fabricate custom instrument panels and systems, or install antennas and other vital pieces of electronic equipment essential for flying.
They are key to keeping both commercial and general aviation aircraft in the air for decades.
New and upgraded flight instruments and radios breathe new life into 20- and 30-year-old aircraft. Square, digital, multifunction displays are steadily replacing old analog "steam gauges" found in older aircraft. Like the rest of the world, airplanes are largely trading dials and needles for electronic displays and touch screens.
The move is being accelerated by a Federal Aviation Administration push to move the American air traffic system from radar-based traffic management to one using satellite signals. The system is known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast.
The new system means many aircraft owners operating in controlled ADS-B airspace must re-equip with new gear by January 2020.
The variety of work — few jobs are the same — is part of what keeps Barnick and his co-worker David Talo in the industry.
"Every job is different," Barnick said. "Even if you have the same airplane come in, even the same avionics we install, it's different."
"It allows me to think, allows me to make decisions ... and it's something new every day," he said. "Especially in a (flight services provider) like this, you have no idea what's going to roll through the door and you have to be up for the challenge. That's what I like."
Aviation, like other industries, faces an outflow of talent as older workers near retirement.
Nationally, the field of aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians is expected to grow about 5 percent (about 7,500 jobs) by 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The need for workers extends to the cockpit, too, where airlines — particularly regional carriers that provide airline service from smaller cities under the names of major airlines — face a shortage of pilots. Across the commercial sector, the number of the number of pilot jobs is expected to see a roughly 4 percent increase (4,400) jobs in the next decade, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's State of Opportunity series throughout 2018 will talk with the working women and men of Wisconsin about their jobs and the pride they take in their work.
For many, aviation is a calling and a passion.
Barnick went to college in 2010 and earned a two-year degree in avionics from Fox Valley Technical College campus in Oshkosh following service as a small-arms specialist on an aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy where he was around aircraft on a daily basis. Simply put, it was a passion for aviation that drove him to pursue a post-military career in the field.
"I like working with electricity and like working with airplanes, so why not combine the two?" he said. "I'm one of the fortunate ones, it's what I like to do."
The Marion resident worked in three other aviation-related jobs in Oregon and Michigan before landing at Jet Air in his home state of Wisconsin.
Talo, a 57-year-old Appleton resident who carries the title of avionics floor lead at Jet Air, has worked in aviation for more than 20 years as a mechanic specializing in sheet metal. He made the transition to avionics in the past few years after a brief time working out of the industry.
An advertisement from Jet Air brought him back two-and-half years ago and is leading him down a path of learning new skills — instrument panel layout, for example — while still using his background in sheet metal.
"I'm the kind of individual that likes to learn," he said. "I don't like doing the same things over and over. I like doing the same things in different ways and improving those same things. Being an aircraft mechanic, and/or aircraft technician, gives me the variety I enjoy in life and the work challenge to come in and solve problems."
With close to a quarter century of experience, Talo is looking ahead to the people — and passing on his acquired knowledge — who will take his spot when he retires.
"Avionics techs are few and far between. You really have to work hard and finding them and retaining them," he said. "When I get close (to retirement), I'm going to take some young guy and pass on all the sheet metal and technical knowledge I have."
Talo sees that desire as a tradition.
"Aviation is like that," he said. "It's kind of a special fraternity and you feel compelled."
Until then, Talo plans on staying in aviation and providing a key service to aircraft owners.
"The look in the customer's face when he walks up and the door is open and everything is lit up, that's pretty much your payday," he said. "That's what keeps me around and keeps me interested."
Information from: Press-Gazette Media, http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com