Sunday, March 11, 2012

Linden, Michigan - Woman who retrained as jet engine mechanic shows 'people can reinvent themselves'

Ryan Garza | MLive
Debbie Monchilov, of Linden, recently graduated with a technical school degree from the Aviation Technology Institute to be a jet engine mechanic.

By Blake Thorne,

LINDEN, Michigan -- Debra Monchilov didn't listen to the criticisms surrounding her choice to change career paths.

Criticisms that she was too old to become a jet engine mechanic.

Or too female.

"I always had a passion," said Monchilov, a Linden resident who at age 51 just became a licensed airframe and powerplant technician. She trained at Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology in Canton.

Completion of the 20-month program means Monchilov can do complex maintenance and upkeep on airplanes, windmills, military drones, even some amusement park rides.

It's a world of opportunity for a former stay-at-home mom and insurance agent who, before this, had no formal engineering or mechanical training and no college credits.

"I had to start from the bottom up," Monchilov said.

Monchilov always had an interest in aviation. She remembers watching planes as a 6-year-old girl and daydreaming about working on them.

She was taking flying lessons at Bishop International Airport a few years ago when she got to talking with a man who worked as a recruiter for Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology, or MIAT.

So she enrolled. She never missed a day of class. She even had the letters "FLYNHI" -- for "Flyin' High" -- on her license plate.

Soon, Monchilov was learning all the complex electronics and mechanical skills required. She built special equipment used to test circuits. She hung propellers and cleaned jet engines. She even built the tool box she uses.

"It was amazing the stuff they had to learn," said her husband, Ron Monchilov.

The hard work paid off. Last April, she was named the national aviation maintenance technician student of the year by the Aviation Technician Education Council. The honor earned her a trip to Orlando to receive the award and rub elbows with industry leaders.

It was a top honor made more special, considering the field in still mostly dominated by men.

"I was the only girl in the class," she said. "Everybody called me the classroom mom."

It's a title she embraced. She would bring in baked goods for her 20- and 30-something male classmates.

"I only remember two, three girls in the whole school," she said.

It's a growing field. The industry is expecting to add 19,600 jobs through 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"This is a hiring machine," Ron Monchilov said of the industry.

"The aviation industry is the new auto industry," he added.

The job offers have been pouring in for Monchilov. Offers from across the country, and here in Michigan, have asked her to work on everything from planes to drones to amusement park rides.

She hasn't taken anything yet. She'd like to stay in the area. Her dreams are to work at Bishop and to work on private planes.

Ron Monchilov said he's very proud of his wife. Her story, he said, shows that there are opportunities out there for people willing to work hard and leave their comfort zone.

"People can reinvent themselves," he said.

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