Jason Erickson - Director of Maintenance, Wipaire, Inc.
Jason Erickson has been surrounded by aviation since he was a child growing up in Somerset, Wis. His father was a recreational pilot, and Erickson was about seven years old when he accompanied him to receive his pilot’s certificate. Shortly thereafter, he was flying around with his father to different destinations in the upper Wisconsin and Minnesota area in their Tri-Pacer, kneeling on the seat when he was allowed to “take the controls.” These days Erickson is the director of maintenance at Wipaire, Inc., a float manufacturer and repair station based in Minneapolis, MN. D.O.M. magazine sat down with Erickson to learn about his career as an aircraft maintenance professional.
Erickson got a lot of flight time as a kid. “I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time flying with my dad,” says Erickson. “I would fly with him in the right seat from the time I was around 14 or 15 years old. We used to go to small airports to get a pizza or a soda. We would go ice fishing and also go to fly-ins and camping trips.”
Erickson learned to fly on a 1,300-foot grass strip. Even though he enjoyed flying, a missed flight got Erickson thinking about becoming an aircraft mechanic. “One day we had an exhaust leak and we couldn’t go flying. I thought to myself, ‘I could fix that!’ We didn’t have the parts, but I knew at that time I could have fixed it. I knew I had a niche. I was a kid who liked working on three-wheelers and motorcycles, so it seemed like it would be a natural fit.”
As fate would have it, Erickson’s path towards aircraft maintenance was helped one day when he and his father flew to Lake Elmo to grab a soda. “There was a sign at Elmo Aero that said ‘line boy wanted,’” shares Erickson. “I asked my dad, ‘What’s a line boy?’ He told me it was someone who fueled airplanes, marshaled them in and put them in the hangar at night. I thought that sounded like a fun job so I applied for and got the job. I started out part time fueling Cessna 152s and 172s. It blossomed into a full-time weekend job. During high school, when I was a junior and senior, my dad would fly me to work. I would spend the days washing airplanes, fueling and scheduling flight school aircraft. Then I would put them all away at night and he would come back and pick me up.”
Not so much guidance
Erickson knew he wanted to become an A&P mechanic. However, when he approached his high school guidance counselor to get some help on what steps to take, he got no guidance at all. “I went to my counselor and said, ‘I want to be an A&P mechanic.’ He just looked at me and had no idea what I was talking about,” says Erickson. “He didn’t even know where to send me to start looking. So my family and I started to do some research on our own.”
Winona Technical College
Erickson and his family found out that Winona Technical College in Winona, MN, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Somerset, had an A&P program. Erickson and his mom made an appointment to visit the school. “As we were touring the school, we walked into a room that had a Jacobs 755 radial engine bagged up,” shares Erickson. “The tour guide opened the bag and slopped a glob of oil on my pants. I just smiled and knew that aircraft maintenance was what I wanted to do!”
Erickson enrolled at Winona Technical College. He would go to school during the week and would drive back home on Fridays, then work Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays at Elmo Aero doing line servicing and some light maintenance. When he graduated from Winona, he went to work full time at Elmo Aero.
Elmo Aero eventually closed its doors and Erickson got a job across the field at J&A Aero. J&A did antique restorations on aircraft such as Clippers, Super Cubs, P-11s and J-3s. The first full restoration Erickson performed was on an Aeronca 7AC Champion.
The job at J&A Aero lasted until around 1994 when Erickson was hired by C&P Aviation to maintain and repair its B-25. C&P also had a large inventory of war bird surplus parts for the B-25 and BT-13. In addition to his maintenance responsibilities, Erickson was tasked with inventorying the company’s war bird parts inventory.
After C&P, Erickson went to work as a part-time temporary mechanic for Mesaba Airlines performing maintenance and heavy checks on its Metros and DeHaviland Dash-8s. “The turning point at Mesaba, when when I realized it wasn’t going to work out, is when I was working three or four double shifts in a row,” says Erickson. “After the fourth day of working a double shift, my crew chief came up to me and said, ‘What’s your name again?’ I didn’t want to work in a place where I was just a number.”
After a few odd jobs here and there, Erickson got his IA in June 1996 and landed a job as a mechanic at Wipaire. He performed inspection and repairs on Cessna 206s, 185s, Caravans and other miscellaneous aircraft.
Soon after getting hired at Wipaire, the company launched its 2100 and 2350 small float line. Erickson was assigned to the installation team. Engineering would design the floats, then Erickson and the other mechanics would modify the aircraft and make the installations. They worked closely with the engineering department as they made custom changes. Once the aircraft entered flight test phase, he would support the test pilots on all the flights. He would configure the aircraft with ballast and fuel as the pilots required and would maintain the aircraft as needed.
In 1999, he was involved with Wipaire’s launch of its mid-range float design 3000 and 3450 series for the Cessna 180, 182, 185 and 206 platforms. Like with the small float line, he worked from design installation through the test flight program.
When the company introduced its Fire Boss line, Erickson was also involved with the installation and test flight program. He got his first exposure to a supervisory role when he became the crew chief for a production of seven floated Air Tractor 802s scheduled for delivery to Europe. Erickson and his crew of seven worked around the clock to meet the installation deadlines. He managed all the aircraft and parts and scheduling to meet the production deadline.
An Uncommon Advantage
As Erickson progressed through the ranks at Wipaire, his typing skills came in handy. On one particular occasion, the secretary was out of the office, and the DOM who needed to make log book entries had a typing ability that amounted to a slow hunt-and-peck approach. “He knew I was an IA and I could type,” shares Erickson. “He knew I could fill out the logbooks and perform AD research. He asked me to help him on several deliveries to make sure the logbooks were complete and the 337s and weight and balances were all done. Because of my typing skills, I started getting in the office more and learned more about the structured paperwork associated with the repair station.”
In 2004, Wipaire’s DOM left the company. Erickson was asked to become the interim DOM while the company searched for a replacement. He was also asked to help in the interviewing and selection process. Erickson, who was 32 years old at the time, was eager to do so since he felt that in the grand scheme of things, he was probably a little young to be the director of maintenance for a multi-million dollar repair station. He participated in the DOM search, but the process fizzled out after several applicants. One day the company’s president approached Erickson and said, “OK, kid, you’re it.”
The new role
At the time of his promotion to director of maintenance, Erickson did not have a single business class under his belt. He had no professional development training and couldn’t tell you what a profit and loss (P&L) statement was. However, he was eager to grow in his career. “I was now in charge of a multi-million dollar department,” shares Erickson. “I had to operate it as efficiently as possible. It was P&L 101 for me. I was eventually able to take a four-credit college course on small business management that taught me a lot. I learned the different sections of a P&L and how to measure success. Other than that course, a lot of the rest was learned at the school of hard knocks and by guidance from a couple of key upper-management personnel. Thankfully, the other managers for the avionics, paint and upholstery departments worked closely with me. We helped each other learn.”
Besides having to learn the business side of being a DOM, Erickson also found himself having to communicate on a higher level. “A big initial challenge for me was trying to coordinate aircraft deliveries with the customers,” he says. “Unlike being a mechanic where I might discuss technical issues with an aircraft owner, I now found myself communicating on a higher level, coordinating schedules and interacting with the customers. I was in charge of invoicing and I needed to communicate to the owners that everything was done to the best of our ability and they got a good value. I went from giving technical advice to participating in a financial transaction.”
The maintenance team
The success of an organization is never about the success or leadership of one person. It’s about cohesive teams. Erickson is quick to point out that a big part of his success as a DOM is the fact he has a good team to work with. “There are a lot of responsibilities as a DOM. After several years of trying to do nearly everything myself, I realized I couldn’t do it all,” he says. “We now have a great team in place here. I have a reliable team in my inspection department. I have two assistant DOMs who do 70 to 80 percent of my customer interaction, where I used to do it all. I have purchasing and invoicing personnel. They let me focus on more administrative functions. And because I have a very reliable team underneath me, I can afford to take a day off or go on vacation and not have to worry about the entire place blowing up.”
What does Erickson think is his key to his success as a DOM? “Always be honest,” he says. “Whether it’s with your customers or your employer, never give anyone a chance to doubt you. If someone doesn’t trust you for one reason or another, it will take years to get back. Never give away your integrity!”
When it comes time to fill a maintenance position at Wipaire, Erickson looks for applicants with general aviation experience. “The biggest thing for me is general aviation background,” says Erickson. “A lot of people bury it on their resume and boil their GA experience down to one line. I like to see the opposite — expand on the GA experience and squeeze down the airline experience.”
What advice would Erickson give to someone applying for a job as an aircraft mechanic? “Put your best face forward during the interview,” he says. “I had one guy come in for an interview dressed sloppy and looking like he hadn’t shaved in a few days. He may have been a great mechanic, but made a horrible impression. When you have someone come in wearing a suit, it makes a difference. Sure, he will be wearing a uniform at work, not a suit, but it makes a good first impression.”
Pay your dues
As far as advancing in a career in aircraft maintenance, Erickson says that new employees need to be prepared to pay their dues. “You have to earn your way up,” he says. “Some people switch jobs consistently for higher pay. That’s OK, and sometimes works. But if you really want to go somewhere, you need to adjust your life. When I started out, I was pulling planes around the ramp by hand because I knew I really wanted to work in GA.
“Explore all areas of aviation, whether it is corporate, flight school, charter or something else,” continues Erickson. “Find something you are good at and build a reputation around it. If you find something you are good at and you are surrounded by good people that have honesty and integrity, you will succeed.”
In the end, Erickson credits his parents, a little luck and timing along with hard work for his career success. “I was lucky to have several opportunities offered to me,” he says. “Where else could I have worked at a place where I was involved with multiple product launches on a wide variety of single engine and turboprop airplanes? Where else could I have been a director of maintenance in my early thirties? I have been blessed to work at Wipaire and for the Wiplinger family for 15 great years so far Sure, there are days that are real hard. But there is a lot of reward that just can’t be put on paper.”