Donated aircraft — and jobs — fuel St. Philip’s training

Boeing San Antonio agreed to donate a used 787 Dreamliner to St. Philip’s College’s aircraft technician program, but the college didn’t have enough space to accommodate the widebody jet, which can carry hundreds of passengers.

Another recent offering — a 1960s Grumman Gulfstream G-159 twin turboprop capable of carrying up to 16 people — was more manageable. The college hangar near Kelly Field does not have runway access, so the plane has to be shipped there in pieces.

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But it’s a good problem to have. With an industry hiring boom and enrollment soaring, the gift of Dick Tips, a San Antonio funeral home mogul, will expand the real-world machinery that students work on and learn from.

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Established in 1994, the program currently educates a diverse group of 116 students ranging from recent high school graduates to career changers and military veterans. It also offers education for students who are still in high school.

Those who complete the 19-month, 1,900-hour coursework earn the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certificate and are eligible to sit a grueling nine-part licensing test.

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“Once they get their license, they get hired quickly,” said Larry Canion, director of the program. “There are many jobs”

Entering St. Philip’s Hangar on any given day is like stepping back in time, with aircraft and engines from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Larry Canion, St. Philips College's Aeronautical Engineering Program Director, speaks about the 19-month apprenticeship program in the hangar on the college's Southwest campus.

Larry Canion, St. Philips College’s Aeronautical Engineering Program Director, speaks about the 19-month apprenticeship program in the hangar on the college’s Southwest campus.

William Luther, Staff Photographer / Staff Photographer

“And this is a centrifugal compressor with technology from the 1950s,” adds Canion, who once worked on airplanes in the Air Force. “Some of these designs were used in World War II.”

The thing about aircraft engines, however, is that despite advancing technology, the basic designs are stuck in the mid-twentieth century, he said.

On a final day of the week, the students either studied the engines closely—there’s one donated by Southwest Airlines that’s worth millions of dollars—or reviewed course material in the computer lab before their four-hour afternoon lectures.

The hangar also features old-fashioned gray lockers, tools, airplane lavatories (which students must learn to repair), and quite a few mosquitoes.

The entire St. Philip’s fleet consists of 10 small planes and two helicopters. At least half were donated, including a tan and white Cessna 310 owned by famed bull rider Larry Mahan and a Cessna 320 owned by George Harris, who owns a Western clothing retail business in Lytle.

The others were purchased at a discount from some of the school’s industry partners – Boeing, Standard Aero, VT.

The designs may be timeless, but the amenities are aging.

“Planes and engines have a shelf life,” Canion said. “The technology is not outdated, but it is being phased out and is no longer airworthy. The chemicals involved start a clock for the life of the product.”

He estimates that the latest gift, the Gulfstream, is worth around $600,000. Only 191 of these were built in a 1959–69 production run, but Tips said they were highly regarded and had a good safety record.

An airplane enthusiast whose father was a flight mechanic, Tips used the plane for years in his business “to bring families home and repatriate human remains,” he said. “When a loved one died on a cruise ship and didn’t know what to do, we brought them and the remains of their loved ones home on this plane.”

On a recent visit to the St. Philips hangar for his TV special, Mission Park Cares, Tips decided to help.

“I thought they needed better equipment, something the students could really get into,” he said. “There is nothing, zero, from the toothpaste we used this morning that does not rely on aviation.”

The only catch with the donation is that the Gulfstream is much larger than its future roommates. The campus needs to tear down and move a fence and pave a large grassy area. The plane must be disassembled and reassembled outside of the hangar, and it can take up to six months before the students can actually start working with it.

“It’ll be delivered by truck,” Canion said. “But it’s pretty tough going down the interstate with an 80-foot wingspan.”

Boeing offered the program an expiring Dreamliner, but there simply wasn’t room for it.

The oldest of the five Alamo colleges, St. Philip’s is both a historically black college and a Hispanic serving institution. It may be old and historic, but the aircraft technician program is at the forefront of its industry as it has adjusted its curriculum to meet the first FAA standards change in decades.

“Practical Test Standards dates back to the early ’60s,” Canion said. “The industry was screaming at the FAA to modernize it.”

Rather than just memorizing content about the engines, students must now know how to apply that information in a variety of scenarios to meet the Airman certification standards that have superseded it.

Canon is ready for the changes.

“You have to know what you’re doing as an aircraft mechanic,” he said.

The recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has reignited demand for pilots, flight crew and mechanics. Students are drawn to the program because it leads to a career that gives them options and pays well, with an average starting salary of $35 an hour, Canion said.

Not only can an FAA A&P-certified mechanic work on any aircraft in the world, they’re in high demand in other industries like wind turbines, auto and motorcycle repairs and manufacturing — because, Canion said, to work on aircraft, students must have multiple operating systems to learn at the same time: electrics, hydraulics, structures and robotics.

But first, seniors must pass the notoriously difficult A&P exam. Canion said many students don’t pass on the first try.

Luke Garza, 39, took the first of nine tests before graduating. He plans to head to New Braunfels in the coming weeks to take over the next few weeks to get a head start on the process.

Andrea Lara, an aeronautical engineering student at St. Philip's College, on the equipment floor of the hangar on the college's Southwest campus on one of the last days of the week.

Andrea Lara, an aeronautical engineering student at St. Philip’s College, on the equipment floor of the hangar on the college’s Southwest campus on one of the last days of the week.

William Luther, Staff Photographer / Staff Photographer

“It’s booming right now and we’re hoping to get in,” said Andrea Lara, 38, who will graduate from Garza in December and hopes to work at Boeing San Antonio.

The first in her family to get into aviation, Lara originally worked in manufacturing at Seafan making custom fan blades, and then at Samsung. She’s ready for a change from the long hours and small-scale production, she said.

Lara laughed when asked about her career prospects.

“No, I’m not worried about finding a job,” she said.

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