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VAN NUYS : Aircraft School Defies Gravity of the Recession

March 19, 1994|SUSAN BYRNES

Inside a hangar on the west side of Van Nuys Airport, a hundred people are betting that the future will take off.

In defiance of the recession that has pummeled the aviation and aerospace industries in Southern California, forcing thousands of aviation mechanics out of their jobs, dozens of adult and teen-age students at the North Valley Occupational Center Aircraft Mechanics Program are learning how to build and fix planes.

"The job market is so bad right now with all the people being laid off," said student Mehrdad Razavi, 38, holding a square of sheet metal under a magnifying glass. "But it's a good career. It's not going to stay down all the time."

In fact, enrollment at the school, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District's adult and occupational education program, is up about 20% in the past few years.

"I find that when the economy is bad, everyone goes to school," said Jack Brestel, an instructor with the aircraft mechanics program for 21 years.

When the school opened at its present site--a $1.5-million facility built in 1978 by the school district--Brestel had just six students. Placing them in jobs was easy.

"(For) any graduate of our school, we could make a phone call and get them a job," Brestel said. "Those were the good times."

Now, instructors encourage graduates to accept any position with the airlines, including handling baggage, with the hope of moving up to aviation mechanic positions. Several graduates recently accepted jobs at Magic Mountain, maintaining and repairing the hydraulic and electronic equipment on the amusement park rides until the economy picks up.

The school started in 1970 as a high school program, and moved to several locations before the hangar and classrooms were built in 1978 for the adult school. For about $55 a semester for the 2 1/2-year program, students earn a license in airframe and power plant mechanics, which prepares them to build and repair all types of aircraft.

About 40% of those in training are high school students, who spend half of their day at their regular campus and the other half at the hangar.

For many, aviation is a second career.

Val Guzman, 40, worked at the General Motors plant in Panorama City for 18 years, trouble-shooting engines before he was laid off when the plant closed in 1992. "I'm not going to sit around and say 'What can I do?,' " Guzman said. "In California, if you can only do one thing, you'll get stuck."

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