Lots of us spent hours in the workshop with Dad as kids. Likely in charge of holding the torch, we’d gaze longingly out the door at temperate Saturday afternoons, shifting from one aching leg to the other and suffering a constant fear of being yelled at for letting the beam of light drift or – on a good day – amassing a good collection of thrilling new swear words. But Faith Ortega was a dream child, and she and her dad got along great.
“I always had a close relationship with my dad. He was an auto body mechanic and would restore old jet boats as a hobby during his free time.”
Probably thanking his lucky stars, Faith’s father always included her in his work at the shop and carefully taught her the labour of love that is restoration. “I always enjoyed getting to spend this time with him.”
“As I grew older, I began exploring new opportunities that would allow me to continue education with a technical background.”
Having always dreamt of a career that involved travel, Faith began looking into the world of aviation and was pleased to discover Southern Illinois University Carbondale, with its excellent program including many specialized courses in maintenance, management, and flight. She began there as a freshman and quickly realized she had made the right choice.
“My first three years of classes consisted of various courses that familiarized me with a full range of aircraft systems, such as hydraulics, aerodynamics, and sheet metal. My professors did an excellent job instructing their classes from an introductory standpoint.”
For Faith, with no specific background in aviation, this was reassuring. “I felt I had so much to learn in a short amount of time!”
One of those professors was Karen Johnson, a female instructor who taught many of the specialized helicopter classes offered at SIUC. She had a significant impact on Faith’s early years and still mentors her today. “Karen also introduced me to another friend and helicopter mechanic, Brette Simpson.” A prior student herself, Brette had already broken into the field and worked for a forest fire operation. Often, it can be a comfort to follow the more immediate example of someone like you.
“Sometimes, as women in the industry, we experience obstacles our male counterparts simply can’t relate or give insight to… anytime I have faced difficulties or needed a second opinion, Karen and Brette have always been just a phone call away.”
In her senior year, enamoured by the niche nature of the trade and the dedicated facilities at SIUC, Faith chose to specialize in Helicopter Maintenance. At the same time, she began looking for apprentice positions to gain hands-on industry experience. She put in a resume at a small flight school called Helisat and landed her first job as a heli mechanic.
“The owner called me back and said he would love to train me and have me help out in the shop. It turned out to be one of my favourite jobs, working my way around various small helicopters and performing light maintenance on a Robinson 22, a Robinson 44, and a Bell 47.”
However, finding full-time work as a qualified aviation mechanic is still quite the feat. Most employers are looking for two to three years of experience, which, upon graduating, is not something that comes with the piece of paper. Faith says her initial job as a part-time apprentice plus the light experience she gained at university definitely aided her employment prospects, but she still had to work hard to find her opening.
“I’m originally from Marthasville, Missouri, and with experience on Bell Helicopter products – specifically the 206B3 and 205 models – I was hoping to find an outfit that operated those nearby. I sent out resumes and got in direct contact with other local mechanics and operators so that, eventually, word-of-mouth got me the job with Helicopters Inc.”
Faith is still with Helicopters Inc today, an Electronic News Gathering operator based out of St. Louis with regular reach all over the United States. The fleet mainly consists of Bell 206B3s (Jetrangers), Bell 206L4s (Longrangers), and Bell 407s.
“As floor mechanic, I take care of inspections, component changes, troubleshooting, and repairs. Our shop also includes an advanced avionics department and skilled sheet metal specialists who engineer and build our ENG packages for customers. I get to travel the country taking care of our fleet.”
Faith loves the variety of her role. Some days are filled with simple 50-hour inspections and torque checks; others, she could be completely removing the main rotor head, mast, and transmission to overhaul. “I try to volunteer to help out on new tasks because I still have so much to learn about these helicopters. Many of the techs that I work with have been at this for 20-plus years, and even they agree they still learn new things all the time.”
As a bit of a passion project, Faith started to keep a log of her experiences on social media via her handle @HowtoHelicopter, where she consistently creates highly engaging posts and informative videos for Instagram and Tiktok. It’s her way of sharing the message of rewarding aviation careers with the next generation; to help them discover their potential.
“I hope to bring others to aviation maintenance and get them excited about it! I also want young people to focus more on doing things they love – and to realize they can make a career out of it. The world of aviation has so much to offer and is evergrowing. My job isn’t far-fetched, and others can do it too!”
“I think the biggest opportunity for change in the industry would be increased exposure. This is something that is heavily lacking on the maintenance side of aviation, especially. So many young people want to get into trades and are interested in becoming mechanics, so why not consider being an aircraft mechanic? I believe many people don’t realize this career path exists or know the steps they need to take to begin the journey.”
Clearly committed to her cause, Faith’s plans for the immediate future are simple: to progress in her career while leaving an impact in the world of helicopters, a world she truly loves.
“Sometimes, I don’t realize how much I’ve worked in a day until I get in my car to go home. Once I sit down, I feel how zapped I truly am. The smell of exhaust lingers in my hair, and the grime and oil stains can stay in the cracks of my hands for days at a time. But it’s all worth it to see through a project that you’ve been picking away at for weeks.”
First published in HeliOps Magazine – Issue 137 (Kia Kaha Media) in ‘A Greater View’, a column profiling women in the heli industry