Editor’s note: One big map. One dart. Ten enterprising journalists. The result is Bexar’s Eye, a weekly series aimed – literally – at uncovering previously untold stories about people, places, and practices in San Antonio and surrounding areas. We asked each of our journalists to throw a dart at a map of Bexar County and find a story wherever the dart lands. What you’ll read in this series are just some of the many stories San Antonio holds.
Caleb Montz is one of several aviation technician students getting ready to graduate from the St. Philip’s College Southwest Campus.
Currently in his third semester, he hopes the program will equip him with the skills to find a job outside of San Antonio.
“I want to travel and see the world, and I think this is going to do it,” Montz said.
Nearly 20 years after the former Kelly Air Force Base closed, students like Montz and the instructors at St. Philip’s are carrying on the aviation industry’s legacy in a hangar cluttered with now-defunct aircraft and an assortment of out-of-commission engines and propellers, just off Quintana Road and south of U.S. Highway 90.
In the graveyard of old helicopters and planes, donated for educational purposes, students learn the foundational skills to become an aircraft technician at the Southwest Campus – they dissect engines from planes, perform post-mortems on extracted parts, and stitch the pieces back together again.
The satellite campus is located near Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Kelly Field Annex. The hangar where students attend class sits atop land that was originally part of Kelly Air Force Base before it became the Southwest Campus in 1987.
Since then, the Southwest Campus has hosted vocational programs and industry certifications such as diesel technology and manufacturing. More than two decades ago, educators founded the aircraft technician program, and students have been learning the finer points of making aircraft fly ever since. Throughout the day, students hear planes flying overhead as they work, all the while learning about the mechanics at work above them.
Military aviation in San Antonio didn’t start on the city’s South Side, but its roots are intertwined with the region’s identity. In 1916, father of military aviation Benjamin Foulois selected land on the city’s southwestern edge as the future site for expanded aviation operations for the U.S. Army.
The site was named for Lt. George E. Kelly, the first American military aviator to die while flying a military plane. In 1917, flight operations began at the base and in 1927, Wings was filmed on-site.
The military base boomed during World War II, with more than 30,000 civilians and military personnel reporting for work. But as time went on, work was moved elsewhere, and, in 2001, Kelly officially closed.
For the past quarter-century, the St. Philip’s College program has served as a bridge between the aviation hub’s past and industry’s future, preparing the next generation of aircraft technicians.
The program takes about 18 months to complete, said Richard Jewell, who coordinates the college’s aircraft technology program. Students come from all over; some are interested after serving in the military while others want to learn more about planes and start the program as an attempt at a new career path.
By the time they leave, students understand the mechanics of various kinds of aircraft. They work on different models, from helicopters to jumbo jets. Classes take field trips to industry partners like Boeing or VT San Antonio Aerospace.
Graduating students receive certificates and should be ready to pass any tests necessary to receive the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airframe and Powerplant license, Jewell said. It’s a “stepping stone” that will help them get a job to learn even more, he added.
During a recent Turbine Theory class in February, Montz worked with classmates JD Sprague and Francisco Aceves to name parts on a diagram of a T-62 engine. Together, the three sat at an industrial table, hunched over complicated manuals showing detailed schematics.
Aceves came to the program from the military, where he worked on humvees. He spells his name using pilot aviation codes – Alpha, Charlie, Echo, Victor, Echo, Sierra – and, after graduation, he hopes to work on “big boys,” or jumbo jets, not the armored vehicles he is used to fixing.
The three students in Montz’s working group said they enjoyed the program and are eager to get started in the field after completing their studies. They unanimously agreed that their favorite class was Aircraft Sheet Metal, taught by Jewell, because of both the hands-on components and the congenial personality of the instructor.
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“I’ve heard that one before,” Jewell said, laughing. “Students like working with their hands, and I show them how to take a sheet of metal and turn it into something that helps an airplane fly.”
In the year and a half students spend studying to become aircraft technicians, they mature from people who may have understood nothing or very little about the aviation industry to professionals who are going to help aircraft take off and remain in the air.
“That’s a special feeling,” Jewell said. “When you see a plane take off and you know what all has gone into making it fly, it’s great.”