Skip to page content
Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

The latest general information on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is available on Coronavirus.gov. For FAA-specific COVID-19 resources, please visit faa.gov/coronavirus.
United States Department of TransportationUnited States Department of Transportation

The Air Up There Podcast

How to Become a Technician

Season 3, Episode 2
Published: Friday, August 20, 2021

Have you ever wanted to start a career in aviation? Well, becoming an aviation technician might be the right path for you! In this week's episode, we're exploring what it means to be a technician for FAA and in the aviation industry.

Technicians have the skills and hands-on training to maintain and repair a wide array of equipment and technology that pilots and controllers rely on for navigation and communication, flight-tracking technology, runway lights and much more. The skills of a technician are absolutely necessary to ensure that all air travelers arrive at their destinations safely and on time.

You'll hear from FAA's Cody Johnson, a district facilities group manager for Technical Operations; Jim Woodruff, who is working to ensure technicians have the proper training; and Krista Jeppsen, who oversees 14 technicians at King Salmon System Support Center in Alaska. Learn more about Airway Transportation Systems Specialists.

How to Become a Technician

How to Become a Technician

Transcript

Kenya Williams:
Welcome to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation airspace. I'm Kenya Williams.

Chris Troxell:
And I'm Chris Troxell. Today's episode is the second in our Career Series. You may have listened to our first about How to become a Controller. Well, today we're continuing to examine the world of aviation, not in the air up there.

Kenya Williams:
Um, Chris, what are you talking about? This is The Air Up There.

Chris Troxell:
Right. Great point Kenya. But, what I mean is that we're going to take a look at a profession that, similarly to air traffic control, is one that keeps your boots on the ground, not in the clouds.

Kenya Williams:
Oh, you mean technicians.

Chris Troxell:
Exactly. The FAA employs thousands of technicians, many with the title, Airway Transportation Systems Specialist; we call them ATSSs. These technicians have the skills and hands-on training to maintain and repair a wide array of equipment. Equipment pilots rely on to navigate, controllers rely on to talk to pilots, flight tracking technology, and much more. Like you said, Kenya, all critical for air travelers to reach their destination safely and on time, and that's just within the FAA. Outside of the agency, airlines and other companies employ aircraft maintenance techs, for example. These mechanics perform essential hands-on maintenance to ensure aircraft are safe to fly.

Kenya Williams:
So, Chris, it sounds like there are a lot of technical jobs in aviation, and let's say I'm tired of doing social media. Where do I even start?

Chris Troxell:
Great question Kenya, and we're going to hear from some folks in these positions.

Kenya Williams:
Awesome. Let's get into it.

Chris Troxell:
First, we'll hear from FAA Tech Ops communications guru, Karen Calderon. She interviewed Cody Johnson, a district manager, out in northern California. Cody does a great job of covering the many career options available in the field. Karen, over to you.

Karen Calderon:
Hi Cody, can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and what led you to your career as an FAA technician?

Cody Johnson:
Hi Karen. Yeah. So my name's Cody Johnson. I am currently a district facilities manager or a group manager for Technical Operations. I work out of a facility called the Northern California TRACON. The responsibility of this facility is to control all air traffic up to about 12,000 feet, and that is for the northern half of California and the western side of Nevada.

Cody Johnson:
I started off in the Air Force. I was a radar technician. i didn't really ask to be a radar technician, but when I got to the career field, I was pretty excited to get involved with it.

Cody Johnson:
I spent my last few years actually working as an installer, which is very similar to what we do in the FAA on the engineering services side, in selling equipment, like instrument landing systems, fiber optic systems, working air traffic control towers. It's not uncommon to find, especially radar technicians, navigation systems technicians, and things like that from the Air Force or Navy, that jump in and find these positions. It's kind of an easy transition from that life.

Karen Calderon:
What does it take to be a technician at the FAA? Can you tell us what kind of training does one need?

Cody Johnson:
Sure. One of the awesome things I think about being a technician is, our positions are so varied. There's so many different types of equipment that people can be working on. So, there's not an amount of training that's really necessary to do this job. It just depends on what it is. We get those military folks because they do have that training, but we grab folks that have IT backgrounds. We have folks that are mechanical backgrounds. We have folks that are just kind of power system backgrounds that are working on HVAC and stuff like that, because we need all of that to make sure that we're getting this work done.

Cody Johnson:
HVAC is particularly important because, especially here in California, if this equipment gets hot, it's just going to shut down. So, it's a really important aspect, but one of the best things about being a technician, is you actually get that training once you come here.

Cody Johnson:
So, if you've already worked in a field that is marketable, you're able to actually go train on the specific equipment, and that's one of the best things about being a technician with the FAA.

Cody Johnson:
When I came on with the agency, I went to radar concept school. I went to ASR-11 school. I didn't go to general radar school. I actually learned the radar on which I was going to be working. I went to starter school. I went to ARTS-287. This is all just equipment. I know they're just acronyms, but everything that we work on, they send us to school specifically for that equipment. And so, you feel a lot more comfortable with that. So, really coming on, you don't need a ton of training. If you have something that's in the realm of IT, of electronic systems, of electrical systems, HVAC, if you've kind of got that background, that'll get you in the door pretty easily. And then when you get here, that's when you really get your training done, and that's when you really learn exactly what you need to do.

Karen Calderon:
Can you tell us a little bit for our listeners who are not familiar with Tech Ops and the array of technicians that exist in the workforce?

Cody Johnson:
Yeah, absolutely. So, we are labeled as what they call 2101s, that's our job series, airway transportation systems specialist. And that's typically how a job announcement on USAJOBS will go out. That's the position. Everyone is kind of covered by this one large job series. And, when you actually get to where you're going, that's where you start to get a little bit more divided up into specific groups.

Cody Johnson:
And, theoretically, one of the concepts was that people can work on all types of different equipment. A lot of times they do, but it would be pretty much impossible for someone to get to an airport and say, "Well, we need you to be able to work on all of this stuff." It's just way too varied, so they are broken up into different subcategories. Radar is one of those subcategories and there's numerous different types of radar out there, on which they might be working.

Cody Johnson:
Automation systems is another one. Automation systems are working on the equipment that air traffic controllers use to see the aircraft. That's a large system in a lot of places where it's getting radar data coming in. It's getting all of this other weather information and everything, and it pulls it all together onto one piece of equipment, that's right now, usually called STARS.

Cody Johnson:
Most places have STARS at this point. They actually broadcast that information out to all of the towers. So here at NCT, for instance, the STAR system actually sends that information to all of the towers in the area. And so everything they see on the scopes is actually translated here at NCT.

Cody Johnson:
There's navigation systems, and that can be broken down into numerous areas. They typically work on VORs, which is equipment that sometimes you might see in the middle of a field or on a mountain top somewhere. And that equipment is used to send out signals everywhere for pilots to be able to fly on.

Cody Johnson:
Navigation technicians might also be working on the instrument landing systems and those are on the air fields. And they send out signals that work with equipment in the aircraft that enable them to land without seeing very well. In some cases, they can land without being able to see anything.

Cody Johnson:
As well, we've got communications technicians out there. So they'll be working largely on radios, and what's called a voice switch, at the towers or at the centers and large TRACONs. And what that does is it takes all the radio feeds, and it allows air traffic controllers to be able to actually select a specific frequency, at a specific position, in a tower, TRACON, or center.

Cody Johnson:
And then one of the most important groups we also have is what they call environmental. Environmental is a very diverse group, because they basically handle the backbone of what we do. All of the equipment I mentioned earlier, is the equipment that's used by pilots and air traffic to see and speak to one another. What environmental technicians do is they do a lot of lighted NAVAIDs. If someone's at an airport and you're landing, you see these lights that are along the way. They help the pilots see where they're going and get a good angle on how they're landing. They also work on building maintenance, electrical systems, the HVAC equipment that's at all those locations. They're really the folks that kind of enable everything else to work, because without power or air conditioning in our world, you're kind of dead in the water, so a very important part of what we do.

Karen Calderon:
What advice do you have for our listeners interested in pursuing a career at the FAA?

Cody Johnson:
Depending on what they want to do, and I'll touch on Tech Ops specifically, because obviously that's where I'm at, but if they're interested in working in that field, reach out. Find some folks that work there. And if you don't know anyone that works with the agency or works in anything like that, go to the airport and find out who the system support manager is, or look online. Find out who they are, knock on doors. Everyone's doing everything online, but that human aspect is still vital to getting people on board.

Cody Johnson:
We try to make it to recruitment fairs and things like that to get the word out, but like with me, my father got the contact information for the SSC manager and I made the call, and we worked through things that way. People remember that person that they saw. They remember the person that made that effort to come out and actually present themselves and say why it is that they would be a good fit for that position. So, I'd say that's probably my biggest advice. Try and make those contacts. If you want to jump in and that's going to be really important.

Kenya Williams:
Wow, it's like a puzzle. It's amazing how all these pieces fit together.

Chris Troxell:
You're not kidding, Kenya. After Karen interviewed Cody, I had a chance to chat with Jim Woodruff to learn more about training technicians. Jim has been with the agency for 25 years and is currently on a detail to ensure technicians get the right training at the right place at the right time, so we have enough certified techs to maintain the equipment nationwide. Let's hear from Jim.

Chris Troxell:
Well, Jim, thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate you taking the time.

Jim Woodruff:
Oh my pleasure.

Chris Troxell:
Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the FAA?

Jim Woodruff:
Sure. I grew up in Ohio. In 1982, I enlisted into the Navy and got into electronics, which was totally foreign to me at that point in my life. Served eight years as a radar technician and then as an instructor.

Jim Woodruff:
And when I got out of the Navy, I taught high school, public school for five years. I kept in touch with a friend who I worked with in the Navy. He ended up getting a job in the FAA, when he got out, as a radar technician. Then he kept pestering me to apply to the FAA. So, finally in 1996, I went ahead, put in an application. I got hired as a radar technician. I was ecstatic to get a job with the FAA and get back into working on radars. Couldn't have been happier then, couldn't be any happier now.

Chris Troxell:
So, we'd like to explain to our listeners what Tech Ops training is like, and what they can expect along the way. How does training prepare technicians for the actual job for working on mass equipment in the field?

Jim Woodruff:
Actually, I'm very proud of the way the FAA does their training. We'll take a new hire. They get to theory, the equipment training, from trained instructors out in Oklahoma City. Then they typically come back to where they work. They'll get assigned an experienced technician to give them on-the-job training, in addition to what they just received. And it all finally comes to a performance exam, and that is a hands-on demonstration that they can do the job that we've hired them for. The performance exam basically, is our way of saying yes, this individual is ready to certify equipment that the flying public's going to rely on.

Jim Woodruff:
It, typically, doesn't end with one certification on one piece of equipment. I know when I was at Cleveland, I probably left there with about 20 certifications, everything from radar to automation to communications, you name it. It's very diverse, depending on where you end up. That's where that constant training comes into play.

Kenya Williams:
Wow, I love that. It's all about the people.

Chris Troxell:
I couldn't agree more Kenya. As we say, mass first, people always. And on another note, you want to move to Alaska, Kenya?

Kenya Williams:
What are you even talking about, Chris?

Chris Troxell:
Do you like snow? Flying through the mountains? How about grizzly bears?

Kenya Williams:
Wait. What does that have to do with becoming a technician?

Chris Troxell:
Actually a lot. Just so happens that Alaska has many job opportunities for technicians.

Kenya Williams:
I mean, I knew that, but there's just no way I'm moving there.

Chris Troxell:
I wouldn't mind fishing up there. I had the opportunity to interview Krista Jeppsen who manages the FAA facility with the coolest name ever, King Salmon System Support Center. It's in Anchorage and covers maintenance on equipment all the way to the Aleutian Islands, about 600 miles to the southwest where the grizzlies roam. Krista has been with the FAA for 20 years, starting in Salt Lake City.

Kenya Williams:
That's incredible. Okay. Enough talking, Chris. Let's get right into the interview. I want to hear from Krista.

Chris Troxell:
Well, Krista, thanks so much for taking the time to be here today and telling us about your journey and your unique job in Alaska. What was that experience like moving to Alaska?

Krista Jeppsen:
It was interesting. I had a lot of misconceptions about Alaska. I had never visited before, so I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if there were bears in town, you know, everybody tells stories. It was a very long drive through Canada, and then to Anchorage, pulling a very large trailer full of all my worldly belongings. Every time I drive, they call it the ALCAN, the Alaska Canadian Highway, I remember how long it is and how long it took to get here and how desolate some areas are. Of course the fishing was fantastic. Yes, there were moose in the backyard and we had some bears and different wildlife, but it was a really good experience.

Chris Troxell:
Can you talk a little bit about Alaska's unique environment and what that means for a technician working in Alaska compared to somewhere in the lower 48?

Krista Jeppsen:
I had a lot of misconceptions about Alaska before I came here. Anchorage is similar to Chicago in the winter time. Out in the remote areas, there's a lot more extreme weather, as you can imagine.

Krista Jeppsen:
Everywhere we go, we need to fly, so we fly to over 20 locations. We have launching off points in Dillingham and King Salmon, so we fly big planes there. And then we fly little planes out to the surrounding villages. So, you're kind of in a little sardine can flying out to your site. We have some world-class bush pilots out here in Alaska that had been doing this their whole lives, so we feel pretty confident they know what they're doing.

Chris Troxell:
On some of these long trips, I was wondering, what's your range?

Krista Jeppsen:
Our range is … Dillingham and King Salmon are both about an hour from Anchorage, so those are launching off points. And then the range is anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes from those different sites. Then we also have two sites that are islands, that are on the Aleutians. We have Erickson Air Station, well, it's a military base and the St. Paul Island, which is also out on the Aleutians.

Chris Troxell:
So on that, what do you think makes this job fun and exciting?

Krista Jeppsen:
I just love the diversity. I love that it's never the same thing every day. There's always something. Whether it's something you've never had to even think about before, or something bizarre, which actually happens up here quite a bit, it's just, some of the oddball things that happen, you just shake your head and go, I never thought I would be dealing with this. I think it's just the uniqueness of some of the problems and/or issues we have up here that really makes it not boring.

Chris Troxell:
Let's say, I want to become an FAA tech. Is there any special training for working Alaska?

Krista Jeppsen:
Yeah. So, training is so important here. We train everyone specific to Alaska. Our number one topic is safety, as you can imagine, but that's FAA-wide. So we have wilderness and survival training that other states may not receive. In fact tomorrow, half my crew is going to CPR, first aid, AED, and wilderness training. It's a full day, so they get to have that, ATVs, heavy equipment, manlifts, snowcat training, bear awareness.

Chris Troxell:
What inspired you, and do you think that there's a way to reach girls and young women to get them interested in tech ops at the FAA?

Krista Jeppsen:
I do. I'm actually on the STEM committee here in our district, and that's looking for women, minorities, and/or just people interested in these type of positions, to reach out to them, either at colleges or at job fairs and get them interested in wanting to be a technician. So we don't necessarily target one group, but we look for anyone that's interested, and certainly women are treated equally as males when we're looking for these positions to come on board with us.

Kenya Williams:
Okay. Maybe I do want to move to Alaska, now.

Chris Troxell:
Same here. Have I mentioned the fishing?

Kenya Williams:
Yes, Chris, you mentioned it twice now. Anyway, now that we've taken a deeper look into Tech Ops, I hope that we've inspired a few of you to become technicians and maybe even move to Alaska.

Chris Troxell:
Yeah, Kenya. These technicians really are behind-the-scenes heroes. They might not get as much "airtime" as pilots, but we wouldn't have the safest aviation system in the world without them.

Kenya Williams:
All right, Chris, that's enough dad jokes for today, and that's our show.

Kenya Williams:
For more information on how to join Tech Ops, visit faa.gov/jobs, and be sure to tune into our next episode, of course. The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you liked today's episode, remember to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media. We're @FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube.

Chris Troxell:
Thanks for listening.