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Mechanics school at Van Nuys Airport threatened by budget cuts

L.A. Unified may close or move the vocational facility. Loss of the program would be a blow to those seeking technical careers in the aviation industry.

December 27, 2012|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • Students Ronald Quijada, Mayko Alonso and Chandana Koralalage, front to back, go through the starting and shutting down procedures on a TH-13T helicopter.
Students Ronald Quijada, Mayko Alonso and Chandana Koralalage, front… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

A popular vocational center at Van Nuys Airport that has trained thousands of aviation mechanics during its 40-year history faces closure or relocation next year if the Los Angeles Unified School District can no longer afford to keep the facility open.

Educators, students, national organizations and business owners at the airport say the loss of the program would be a blow to those seeking technical careers in the aviation industry, which is already suffering a shortage of qualified entry-level mechanics.

"Many businesses hire our graduates, from small engine shops to major aerospace firms," said Michael Phillips, a senior instructor at the school. "It would be devastating to our program if we had to close or move."

The North Valley Occupational Center-Aviation Center is housed off Hayvenhurst Avenue in a hangar with adjoining workshops and classrooms. The facility is filled with more than a dozen aircraft, including helicopters and a U.S. Air Force T-33 jet trainer from the 1950s.

Jet and piston engines are cut away, exposing their internal workings. Students work on small Cessna 150s and sit at tables filled with technical manuals and aircraft parts.

The setting is ideal. Van Nuys is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world and home to hundreds of aircraft. Scores of aviation businesses surround the runways. There are engine shops, airframe shops, flight schools and fixed-base operators that offer an array of services including charter aircraft.

"It's an inspiration," said Matthew Dods, a 24-year-old student from Thousand Oaks who left a retail job to pursue an aviation career. "Closing the school just doesn't make sense when so many people are looking to hire fresh air-frame and power plant mechanics."

The center, which opened in 1971, offers a two-year program that prepares students for certification by the Federal Aviation Administration. About 100 students attend per semester and the total cost of tuition is $2,400, far cheaper than at private technical colleges.

Carlynn Huddleston, the school's principal, said the district's budget problems are continuing to threaten the program, which has already cut its staff and canceled evening classes.

The school might be relocated to another North Valley Occupational facility in Mission Hills, but there would be less space and students would have to share workshops with other trades.

"We would be squeezed into some rooms. There is no hangar," Huddleston said. "The program would become second rate."

If closed or relocated, the center would join other aviation programs that have been shut down or scaled back at school districts and community colleges across the region.

The situation has attracted the attention of the Van Nuys Airport Assn. and major organizations, such as the National Business Aviation Assn., the National Air Transportation Assn. and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. All have urged LAUSD Supt. John Deasy to keep the school at the airport.

"This is a huge asset for the city," said Curt Castagna, president of the Van Nuys association. "A couple hundred students from the school have been hired at the airport. These are good-paying jobs, and they have provided economic value locally and to the industry."

Bill Dunn, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.'s vice president of airport advocacy, reminded Deasy in a letter that the mechanics school has gained national recognition. Closing it, he wrote, would only aggravate a growing shortage of aviation mechanics.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the need for aircraft mechanics and service technicians will increase 11% annually at least until 2016. Industry analysts say the number of graduates will not keep pace with retirements and those leaving the trade, let alone the projected need.

Huddleston is looking into whether Los Angeles World Airports, the operator of Van Nuys Airport, would be willing to lower or virtually eliminate the school's rent, which, she says, is about $12,000 a month. She added that she is also working with the district to see if the lease can be extended for a year to buy some time.

Though the FAA requires airports to charge tenants a fair rent, agency policy allows reduced or nominal rents for nonprofit, accredited education programs that benefit aviation.

Diana Sanchez, a spokeswoman for Van Nuys Airport, said that Los Angeles World Airports has long supported the mechanics program but that the school district faces financial challenges beyond rental expenses.

Though there have been tentative discussions, she said, district officials have not formally approached the airport department about a new rental agreement. She added that Los Angeles World Airports is willing to work with the aviation center and the FAA if a proposal is made.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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