Students of Everett Community College’s new avionics program (from left) Andrew Leffew, Anaseini Nauvilou, Ed Thompson and Maddie Kutzera work to dissassemble a cockpit at the school’s Paine Field facility. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Why aircraft electronics is suddenly a hot, emerging field

EVERETT — Anaseini Naulivou yearns to one day design her own airplanes. Until then, she’ll settle for learning how to put together planes designed by others.

Naulivou is one of the first 10 students at Everett Community College’s new avionics program, studying how to troubleshoot, repair and maintain the electronic systems of aircraft.

“How I look at it is if I were to design something, I need to know what it’s going to do and how it will behave out in the field,” Naulivou said. “In that way, it will make me a better designer, because I’ll have hands-on experience.”

The program covers two quarters and is offered at the Aviation Maintenance Technology school at Paine Field. EvCC is the first school in the state and believed to be the first in the Northwest to offer avionics.

“Avionics is a wide field,” instructor Raylene Alexander said. “It’s everything from the reading light of the passenger who sits in an aircraft with a book to complicated glass cockpits and autopilot systems. It’s anything (on an aircraft) with a wire.”

Avionics has been part of the aviation industry for decades, but it’s becoming a more and more important field because aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are building planes with wiring controlling flight rather than cables and hydraulics.

“It’s really an emerging field in the last 10 years,” said Rob Prosch, EvCC’s associate dean of aviation. “The issue is because everything has gone so high tech with electronics, we have (aircraft mechanics) who have no idea how to troubleshoot and repair it.”

Boeing approached EvCC three years ago about starting an avionics program, one that could be emulated at other colleges around the state that train aircraft mechanics.

Boeing along with Woodinville’s Dynon Avionics and Delta Airlines have supported the program through donations and technical know-how.

There is a pressing need to train more aircraft mechanics with large numbers of aviation industry workers set to retire and a projected growth in flights, aircraft and even airlines over the next 20 years, Prosch said.

Students can get a two-year degree to become an aircraft mechanic without taking the avionics courses. But getting a certificate in the avionics program makes them much more in demand.

Those workers are needed at airplane manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, their suppliers and the airlines themselves, Prosch said.

EvCC gave the green light for the program in January. It started offering courses two months later. Prosch had been working behind the scenes getting it ready to go.

That included recruiting instructor Alexander from Kansas State University to teach it. Prosch met her while he was visiting the college looking at their program. He hired her on a contract basis to put together the avionics curriculum for EvCC.

Alexander, who started as an avionics tech for the U.S. Marine Corps in 1980, had been thinking about retiring to pursue other interests. She’s originally from this area and her mother still lives in Granite Falls.

“Quite truthfully, he just wore me down,” Alexander said.

She liked the challenge of putting together an avionics program from the ground up and one that could be used at other colleges in the state.

To get the program together, EvCC started with just 10 students, but they’re expanding to 20 this fall and will offer it twice a year to train 40 students. The fall class is already full.

At a class on a July afternoon, Alexander sent her students to a hangar working on a grounded Piper Apache.

One of the students is John Poppke, a retired mailman who lives on the Tulalip Reservation.

“We’re going to dismantle the old instrument panel, because we’re getting a donated glass cockpit, which means we’ll replace all the steam gauges and put in a nice screen that you can touch and move things and go from one screen to another real easily,” Poppke said.

He’s already completed the two-year aircraft mechanic degree and has returned for the avionics courses.

“I’m thinking about building a kit plane and I want to know as much as I can before I go out and kill myself,” Poppke said.

Naulivou, 34, is taking avionics courses for a second time. She had taken the courses in Fiji where she’s from and was hired at Fiji Airlines as an avionics trainee.

The airline didn’t have a place for her once she finished as a trainee. Instead, she moved to job as a materials planning officer, getting parts and equipment to grounded Fiji Airlines jets around the world.

She really wanted to design airplanes. So she decided to move to the Seattle area in 2015 to continue her education. She’s living in Federal Way, but attending classes at EvCC and South Seattle Community College.

She wants to transfer into the aeronautics program at the University of Washington in 2019.

The program is hyper-competitive so she’s hoping that her experience as well as her training in avionics will make the difference.

“As you see, aircraft designing is moving into more digital instead of cables and hydraulics running through it,” Naulivou said. “I think that with avionics that I’ll have an advantage over other students.”

Learn more

An information session about Everett Community College’s new advanced avionics program is at 3 p.m. today at EvCC’s Aviation Maintenance Technology facility, 9711 32nd Place W., Building. C-80 at Paine Field in Everett.

The program teaches students how to maintain, troubleshoot and repair aircraft electronics systems. A 2016 Boeing report identified avionics as one of the largest skill gaps among aviation maintenance technicians.

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