Aviation High School's pupils practice on 747s Unique program in N.Y. provides hands-on educational opportunity


NEW YORK -- Aviation High School is a prime model of one of the nation's most unusual school-to-work programs - the nation's only high school whose students service commercial aircraft, educators say.

For three years, Tower Air and Aviation High have worked together. About 40 seniors are interns there during a fifth year at the high school, spending 20 hours a week at Kennedy International Airport instead of in shop classes. Tower Air has hired all its student interns after graduation full time or part time.

"It is a unique school," said Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration's eastern region. "It has been doing it for the longest time and has been among the most successful programs in the country."

Lest the thought of teen-age interns fixing planes generate fear of flying, the airline and the high school both point out that trainees start work with baby steps. They observe for the first five weeks, then they perform more elementary tasks like changing light bulbs in the cabin, fixing seats or lubricating the flap controls on the wings.

Eventually, students are allowed to replace faulty circuit breakers and remove and replace aircraft engines, under the supervision of an experienced mechanic.

Opened in 1925

Aviation High School opened in 1925 as the Central Building Trades School, a vocational training program, with three instructors teaching woodworking, plumbing and electrical installation.

In 1936, the school took aviation technology as its focus and 21 years later, it moved to Long Island City, Queens.

After four years of shop classes, including hydraulics, welding and sheet metal, students qualify for an FAA exam that licenses them to work on an aircraft frame or engine maintenance.

Students who stay a fifth year can obtain a second license from the agency and qualify for an internship with Tower Air - and usually, a job offer.

Tower gets the chance to evaluate potential workers while the school's students get the chance to work on real aircraft.

"We have the equipment, but it is not the same thing," said an assistant principal, Mario Cotumaccio. "We don't have a 747 in our back yard."

Cotumaccio started the program because Aviation High graduates faced a familiar teen-age Catch-22: They had trouble finding their first jobs because they lacked airline experience, which they could not get until they had a job.

Tower Air, a low-cost airline based in New York, decided to give the internship a try. Tower Air Chairman and Chief Executive Morris Nachtomi said the company has been pleased.

Before the internship program, training programs were confined to the small hangar behind the school, which holds about 16 aircraft, four from World War II.

New academic hurdles

The school faces new academic hurdles as the state tightens its academic requirements.

All public school students - including those at vocational schools - are being required to take Regents Exams, which test a student's preparation for college work. It comes during a national effort to raise standards for vocational schools.

"We are seeing a need for well-rounded education," said John Decaire, president of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a consortium of industrial companies based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Companies don't operate sort of autonomously anymore," Decaire said.

While some Aviation graduates stay in aircraft maintenance, about 77 percent go on to college.

Yvonne Franco plans to go to Jacksonville University in Florida after she completes her fifth year in June 1999, paying for school by working in aviation maintenance.

"It is a backbone for me," Yvonne said. "I know it assures my future."

Her mother, Marleny Franco, said, "When the children come out of there, they come out with a career in their hands so that they don't have to go fry potatoes at McDonald's."

"It's hard to believe a 19-year-old is working with Tower," said JTC Oscar Menendez, an Aviation High School graduate who is working at Kennedy International Aiport.

Menendez plans to continue working at the airport after he enters the College of Aeronautics in East Elmhurst, Queens. "It's kind of crazy," he said, "Here we are fixing airplanes that actually fly."

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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