Eric Secrist - Director of Maintenance, Aerodynamics Inc.
There is often a chasm between operations and maintenance. An “us vs. them” mentality between pilots and mechanics creeps up in many aviation facilities. Does it have to be this way? “Absolutely not!” says Aerodynamics Inc. (ADI) director of maintenance Eric Secrist. Secrist is an A&P/IA and pilot with more than 15,000 hours flying everything from J3 Cubs to B-767s. This month D.O.M. magazine sat down with Secrist to learn how his life and work experiences have helped him create a culture of teamwork and learning at ADI.
An early passion for aviation
Secrist grew up in a rural area of Sonoma, CA. A large field was all that separated him from the local private airport. As a teenager, he would often walk over to the airport and offer to wax gliders for free rides. “I hung out at the airport a lot,” says Secrist. “But I wasn’t one of those guys who at 16 soloed and 17 got my pilots license. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my future at that time.”
Secrist tells D.O.M. that his career thoughts back then were possibly becoming a back country game warden or a biologist. The turning point that led him to a career in aviation was when he obtained his private pilot’s certificate in his early twenties. “That’s when I caught the aviation bug, or the aviation curse, depending on who you talk to,” shares Secrist.
Secrist knew he wanted to fly for a living. He wasn’t sure if the military was going to be his career or if he would end up in commercial or corporate aviation. He ended up joining the Air Force Reserve. “Joining the Air Force Reserve enabled me to finish my college degree and obtain my A&P certificate,” Secrist tells D.O.M. “I also saw it as an opportunity to secure a pilot slot within the reserve unit that I was assigned to.”
D.O.M. asked Secrist why he wanted to get his A&P when he knew he wanted to fly. “I always had a strong aptitude for mechanical things,” he shares. “I drove my parents crazy taking everything apart. Yeah, I was one of those kids. If I was going to be a pilot, I wanted to have a deep knowledge of all the systems and how they worked. Looking back, getting my A&P has done nothing but enhance both my career and my flying.”
Putting his A&P to use
Secrist was clipping right along, waiting for a pilot’s slot to open up. Then the downsizing of the military in the late 1980s and early 1990s happened. “I didn’t get a pilot slot,” shares Secrist. “As time continued to pass on, there were no pilot slots to be had in the reserve unit I was in. So I changed courses and stayed in the Air Force Reserve as a mechanic.”
While working maintenance in the Air Force Reserve, Secrist was able to finish his pilot ratings through the aero club at the base. He worked at the flying club as an instructor, and was able to build up his flying time. He also worked in the flying club’s maintenance shop. It was around that time he also started working on antique airplanes on the side. He restored a Piper Apache with a Geronimo conversion. After the restoration, he flew the Apache to build up his multi-engine time.
Time to fly
Although Secrist enjoyed working on antiques and building up his flying time in his Apache, he yearned for the opportunity to fly full time. His opportunity came when he was hired as a pilot/mechanic for Viscount Airlines, a Part 121 sports charter that flew 727s and 737s. “Viscount typically hired pilot/mechanics,” shares Secrist. “The pilot/mechanic was responsible for flying, keeping the operation going and fixing the airplane. Having an A&P/IA allowed me to bypass the traditional route of regional to major airlines like most pilots have to do and jump right into that operation. It was because I had my certificates and extensive experience as a mechanic on heavy jets when I was in the Air Force. I was very fortunate.”
Secrist did that for a couple of years. He also continued his business out of a small hangar in the Sonoma airport where he developed a core group of customers, maintaining their wide variety of antique airplanes like Stearmans and Travel Airs. He also obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Corporate Education, Training and Development which he says has been invaluable throughout his career.
Viscount ended up going bankrupt, and Secrist was immediately hired by TWA. He flew 767s for TWA and then American Airlines for many years. After getting furloughed from American, he went to work for ATA airlines. He flew 737-800s for ATA for a few years until the company filed for bankruptcy.
“I was at a critical juncture at that point,” Secrist tells D.O.M. “My shop was doing well. I thought it was time for me to stop flying and concentrate on my maintenance business. I did that for about a year and a half. But the flying curse stays with you forever, and I was offered a position with my current employer, ADI, out of Pontiac, MI, specifically for the shuttle contract out West.”
Secrist was hired as a pilot for a new corporate shuttle contract ADI had been awarded. Soon after he was hired, Secrist was offered the chief pilot job for the contract. During that time, he helped in the transition from a Part 91 operation to a Part 125, which had been mandated by the FAA at the time. “The workload was heavy and resources were thin,” shares Secrist. “But we made it happen and made the transition ahead of the deadline that had been established by the FAA.”
Secrist and ADI’s director of operations Shawn Huarte saw a need to develop a comprehensive in-house training program for ADI’s pilots. “We wanted to develop a program similar to an air carrier’s training program,” says Secrist. “Up until that point, everything had been outsourced.”
Secrist and Huarte developed the new training program. It ended up being a huge success. Secrist served as chief pilot, pilot proficiency examiner and simulator instructor for around two years.
Back to maintenance
The whole time he was flying for ADI, Secrist had kept up his side business maintaining antique aircraft. But maintenance would no longer take a back seat to flying. Two years ago, Secrist was tasked to be the director of maintenance for ADI’s corporate shuttle contract.
The contract Secrist works on is a corporate shuttle contract for a technology company. It shuttles almost 175,000 passengers per year. “We essentially run a small corporate airline with a regular daily schedule,” says Secrist. “It is the largest corporate shuttle in the United States. We are proud to say that we have enjoyed an accident-free operation for the past 25 years.”
As a pilot, Secrist had seen the benefits of establishing an in-house training program on the operations side. After he transitioned to director of maintenance, he knew he needed to establish a similar training program for the maintenance department. “When we incorporated our new maintenance training program, we started from ground up,” Secrist tells D.O.M. magazine. “We went from basic familiarization to advanced troubleshooting and avionics. We contracted through FlightSafety in Houston. FlightSafety built an excellent program for us. I would give them a profile of my mechanics’ experience levels and the training they had received, and they would tailor the courses for us when requested. The return on investment has been very apparent. It has affected not only our reliability, but every aspect of our business. Our employee retention has also been outstanding — our technicians feel valued like never before.”
The shuttle has operated Embraer 135s for the past 10 years. Its dispatch reliability and operational availability is regularly in the 98-99 percentiles. “It’s a monumental task to be able to do that,” says Secrist. “Training has played a big role. But it also requires all of the departments to work in unison.”
Breaking down barriers
Because of his experience, Secrist knew firsthand what it felt like to work as both a pilot and mechanic. He was familiar with both sides of the fence. He was frustrated with the gap that existed between operations and maintenance in many companies. Secrist made it his mission not to allow that gap to exist at ADI. He believed that all departments at ADI needed to work together in order to be successful. He worked closely with Huarte to foster a culture of professionalism and mutual respect between all departments in the company.
Secrist believes that bridging the gap is a critical part of a quality operation. “We believe there are cornerstones to a quality operation,” says Secrist. “It should have high-quality and robust training. It should have a bridge, not segregation, between departments. The better you work together as a team, the safer the operation. And finally, you need to figure out a good balance between outsourcing and performing work in house. I believe there are inherent problems with outsourcing everything, and doing everything in house isn’t economically feasible. The trick is to strike that balance where you are super efficient. If you do all that, you should have an operation that runs smoothly, efficiently and most important — safely.”
Working closely with Embraer
Secrist is quick to mention the close working relationship ADI has with Embraer and how that has helped them be successful. “We have a relationship with Embraer that is remarkable,” says Secrist. “Embraer not only produces an outstanding product from a mechanical and reliability standpoint, its customer service and engineering is world class. And I believe that has been key to our success as well. They actually stand as a true partner in our operation.”
Pursue it with all you’ve got
We asked what advice Secrist would give to someone just starting out on their career in aviation maintenance. “I would never let somebody tell me, ‘You can’t do it,’ or ‘You can’t get there,’ or take a snapshot of the industry today and say, ‘This is your future.’ The future is wide open. There are lots of areas you can go into. Go into the field with your eyes wide open. Don’t have a narrow vision. If you love it, pursue it. Pursue it with all you’ve got! And you’ll get there.”