A Girl's Life at Aviation High School

A Girl's Life at Aviation High School

As a girl growing up in South Ozone Park, Estrella Ham remembers, she would stand in her backyard and watch the bellies of planes landing at nearby JFK airport as they flew over. "I'd try to see if I could guess what model and what airline they were," she says.

When she first heard about Aviation High School, an 83-year-old school housed in an L-shaped beige-and-green Art Deco building in Long Island City, Ham was drawn to it. "I wanted to come because I thought flying would be a good career," she says.

Each year the school's name seduces many New York City eighth graders who come upon it, printed in bold, in the Directory of New York City Public HighSchools, and dream of a life of flight. Some don't bother with the fine print that describes Aviation's curriculum, a rigorous, FAA-sponsored program that prepares students to become licensed airplane mechanics, not pilots. Yet in the end, many of these students—Ham included—end up embracing the aviation industry's oily underside.

Aviation "super senior" Carla Rodriguez shows off her handiwork.
Tina Zimmer
Aviation "super senior" Carla Rodriguez shows off her handiwork.
Melody Monroy joins Rodriguez in the cockpit of Aviation High School's donated Boeing 727.
Tina Zimmer
Melody Monroy joins Rodriguez in the cockpit of Aviation High School's donated Boeing 727.

The Aviation school day, though earthbound, is novel. First-year students spend their afternoons in the school's academic wing, where they sit in chair desks in classrooms decorated with educational posters and flags, studying traditional subjects: history, math, English, and chemistry. But they begin the day in the shop wing, which is filled with the sounds of drilling, riveting, welding, shaving, sawing, and—loudest and most pervasive of all—banging on metal.

Ham traded the uniform she'd worn at Our Lady of Grace, the parochial school where she'd attended middle school, for a pair of white coveralls stamped on the back with Aviation's green-wings logo, along with safety goggles and orange noise-protecting headphones. For her first project, building a small model airplane from scratch out of sheet metal, she stood at high worktables in her freshman shop; Aviation's shop teachers, most of them either current or former airline mechanics, enforce a no-sitting rule for students.

"If you're sitting down, it means you're not working," says one current Aviation senior. "They treat you like you're working for them and they teach you the hard realities of life really fast."

Very few women work as aviation mechanics—far fewer proportionately than students at Aviation, where girls account for 14 percent of the student body. When Ham entered Aviation in 2003, girls accounted for only 7 percent of Aviation's student body. The increase bodes well for a corresponding change in the industry—12 percent of all airplane mechanics in the United States are Aviation alums.

One of these is Evita Rodriguez, who graduated from Aviation in 1998. At age 27, Rodriguez holds one of the most powerful aviation mechanical positions in New York: station manager for the 166 American Airlines mechanics at LaGuardia. But just one of her staffers is a woman. Women account for only two of the 350 American Airlines mechanics at JFK. Other airlines have similar numbers.

Rodriguez, who says she arrived at Aviation as a "prissy girl" with no taste for, say, dismantling broken coffee makers, now has to fight the urge to crawl under planes with her mechanics. (In her current job, she has to wear suits.) But she readily acknowledges the drawbacks of the field—for men and women both. Because most work on airplanes is done in the off hours, even mechanics who've worked for the same airline for 20 years may have to work nights. "You're outside in the cold when everyone is sleeping. When you're 21 or 22, all you want to do is go clubbing, and I was out there changing an engine in the rain." She encouraged her younger sister, who also graduated from Aviation, to enroll in nursing school; her sister took that advice.

One reason aviation mechanics is a suitable focus for a large public school—and a reasonable course of study for teenagers who aren't sure they want to become mechanics—is that the skills required to fix an airplane are highly transferable. Aviation mechanics believe that someone who can master the complex systems of an airplane can fix anything. Students at Aviation also know that there are aviation doctors and aviation lawyers—in the words of a current senior, "There's a whole aviation world." Shop instructors are fond of listing the career tracks of Aviation graduates they know—dental hygienists, physical therapists, electricians who work for Con Edison or the MTA. One shop instructor has friends who worked as amusement-park technicians at Disney World. Everyone seems to have heard about Aviation graduates who work as pastry chefs.

Ham knew that many Aviation graduates become pilots, too. "If you're going to be flying, you should know what you're flying in and how to fix it if it breaks," she says. She threw herself into the school's shop curriculum as though it were an extended ground school.

In her sophomore year, she learned how to cut, shave, and bend a more rigid grade of sheet metal into a coffee-table-sized model of an aileron, or wing flap. Junior year, she rose at 5 a.m. to make it to school by 7, learning how to weld jet engines and studying airplane electronics. (For Aviation juniors, the school day begins at 7:15 a.m. and ends at 4:15 p.m., a schedule that's necessary for accommodating both an increased load of shop classes that year and standard academic classes. An Aviation junior's school day is the longest in the New York City system.) After school, Ham went to track practice or reported for duty at Aviation's ROTC wing.

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