Scott McNabb was always a tinkerer. Tractors, dirt bikes, four-wheelers — anything motorized he could find lying around the farm he grew up on in Missouri, he tried to repair or enhance. With varying levels of success, to his parents' dismay.
"Sometimes, not so much," McNabb said with a laugh. "I tried. But I learned, right?"
So when McNabb became interested in a military career in 1989, he naturally gravitated to the Air Force and the maintenance career field, eventually becoming a staff sergeant and a C-130 crew chief serving in places like Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, and Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and working long hours to keep planes in the air during the first Gulf War.
But by 2001, McNabb had grown tired of the toll deployments and frequent temporary duty assignments had taken on his family, and he became interested in other opportunities.
He — as well as thousands of other maintainers with military backgrounds in recent years — found just such an opportunity in the commercial airline industry.
Pilots aren't the only people airlines are hoping to poach from the Air Force. Recruiters and spokesmen from Southwest Airlines — where McNabb was hired in June 2001 — Delta Airlines and United Airlines agree that hiring military maintainers is a solid business decision.
"Historically, we have looked to the military for [maintainer] candidates," United spokesman Charlie Hobart said.
And Tiffany Harvey, who oversees recruiting for Southwest, said airlines are facing a labor shortage from the impending retirement of the baby-boom generation. This is making it more important to recruit from the military in the years to come, she said.
Harvey also said Southwest's 2011 acquisition of AirTran Airways increased its need to hire more maintainers in recent years.
Maintainers from the Air Force and other service branches, airlines say, come with years of experience working on complicated air frames. They're usually disciplined, reliable, accustomed to working in tough situations and handling stress, and can both lead and work well as a team, they say.
"Our military employees, they can hit the ramp," Harvey said. "They're [fixing aircraft as line mechanics] in the elements. If there's something going on, whether it's snowing or raining or blazing hot, they're out there, repairing the aircraft as quickly as possible to get those passengers up and moving."
The Air Force this year took a significant step to try to hold on to its maintainers. In March, 10 of the 13 career fields added or restored to the list of jobs eligible for large selective re-enlistment bonuses were maintenance or avionics jobs. Those SRBs could be worth as much as $90,000, although most airmen would actually receive far less.
It's hard to get a handle on how many of the nearly 290,000 maintainers working across the civil aviation industry have military experience. Harvey said 828 of Southwest's roughly 3,200 tech ops employees — roughly one-quarter — have a military background, but not all of those are maintainers. Harvey said about 1,800 tech ops employees maintain aircraft, but Southwest doesn't know how many of those 828 veterans actually turn wrenches.
Southwest prefers military candidates who have worked on Boeing aircraft, because it makes it easier to adjust to working on its commonly used 737s. But even military maintainers who haven't worked on aircraft similar to the Boeing 737s, or other major passenger aircraft commonly used by airlines, can get up to speed quickly.
"As long as they can fix components above and below the wing, they're great with it," Harvey said. "It's a lifetime career; it's a true calling. If you love airplanes, you love turning wrenches and you love a dynamic work environment, you've come the right place."
Harvey said Southwest looks for maintainers with at least two years of experience. So by the time an Air Force maintainer finishes his first enlistment, he's already got more than enough time under his belt to qualify.
Airlines get the word out that they're hiring by talking to soon-to-separate service members at job fairs, reaching out to veterans organizations, and visiting bases. Hobart said United also works with groups such as the Wounded Warrior Project; the USO; the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which helps wounded veterans; and the Fisher House to reach out to veterans.
Making the transition
To become a tech ops maintainer in the airline industry, maintainers need an airframe and powerplant, or A&P, license. But years of military experience can considerably smooth the path to getting an A&P license.
Hobart said A&P courses often take 16 weeks to finish, but veterans can often use their military experience to cut that down to eight or even four weeks. He said maintainers who have worked on aircraft such as fighter jets that are very different from passenger aircraft usually need to get some education on how to repair them.
Hobart also said some veterans use their GI Bill benefits to help pay for such courses, which are offered by schools such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
But for McNabb, things went even quicker. His years of military experience allowed him to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to skip tech school and go straight to the test for his A&P license. That included a practical evaluation at a private airport, where McNabb had to repair a Cessna — an aircraft he had never worked on before.
But the Air Force had left him with such a wealth of knowledge and experience that he was able to improvise and fix the "completely unfamiliar" aircraft, scoring his license and a job with Southwest Airlines. He hasn't looked back, by and large — though he does sometimes miss the camaraderie of Air Force life.
Harvey also said newly hired Southwest maintainers go through a training program where they shadow more experienced maintainers and learn the finer points of Southwest's 737 fleet.
"If they have experience turning wrenches, no matter what the aircraft is, as long as it's heavy enough [at least 12,500 pounds] … it's trainable and coachable," Harvey said.
Often, McNabb and Harvey said, military maintainers specialize in a certain area. But in the airline industry, a tech ops maintainer need to be a jack-of-all-trades.
McNabb said when he was in the Air Force, it was important that he not get complacent in his job, so he often spent time hanging around specialists working on C-130s to learn how they did things. That helped give him a wide base of knowledge that comes in handy in his current job.
"We are expected to do all of it," McNabb said. "That would be my advice [to any maintainers considering going to the private sector]: Don't get comfortable in just your career field while you're in the Air Force. To be competitive, you have to know more than just the basic aircraft components. You actually have to be able to do pretty much anything — avionics, to sheet metal, the landing gear. The whole nine yards."
McNabb, who now works at Southwest's Dallas base, said the money is better at Southwest than he'd have gotten if he had remained in the Air Force. The hours are better, too. He's got more downtime, and he is able to trade shifts with his colleagues to build in more days off without having to take vacation time. He doesn't work weekends, which he sometimes had to do in the Air Force. Deployments are a thing of the past, allowing him to spend more time with his family.
And though triple-shifts are rare for McNabb these days, when he does have to work overtime, he gets paid for it.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.